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Organizing for the schools our students and educators deserve

By Amanda Adams 

The COVID-19 pandemic was an eye-opening experience. I became acutely aware of how valuable my health is, how important my family, friends and colleagues are, and, among other things, how important teachers are to public education.

COVID-19 highlighted persistent health and wealth gaps in the U.S., and New Jersey was no exception. During the last two years we saw how the virus particularly impacted poor communities of color across the country. As we prepared to go back to school last fall, the conversation shifted from student and family well-being to school safety and missed learning opportunities. I challenged myself to consider how my work could heighten its focus on the most marginalized educators, students and families in this state.

For the last seven years, I was the coordinator of the NJEA Priority Schools Initiative. That initiative provided professional development to schools through collaborative leadership, data analysis and goal setting. Once administrators and staff created an implementation team composed of a diverse representation of teachers, NJEA Priority Schools consultants helped the school meet its achievement goals.

The program was especially effective in developing professional learning opportunities, creating student programs, and fostering collaboration and shared leadership. It was most successful when there was buy-in at all district levels.

In Linden, for example, we were invited by the local president to work in three school buildings, assisting the school leadership teams with looking at data, defining professional learning goals and working toward those goals through strong professional learning communities.

When the literacy coach from one of the three schools saw results in escalating student achievement scores, she brought our model to the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. Before long there was a districtwide model in all of Linden’s elementary schools fashioned after the NJEA Priority Schools Initiative. One of their schools, School #5, received the high honor of becoming a National Blue Ribbon School in 2020. But this is an unusual case—the Priority Schools Initiative did not usually sustain itself once the consultants left the school or the district leadership changed.

The NJEA ACCESS Model

Over the last two years, many articles were published describing how well schools known as “community schools” supported students and their families during the pandemic. These schools had systems in place to meet all the unique needs of their communities prior to the pandemic. The National Education Association already recognizes community schools as “a strategy to advocate for racial justice in education and remove obstacles that stand in the way of some students.” Public schools in New Jersey needed to move toward a model that would support all of our students, especially those most deeply affected by the pandemic.

The Priority Schools Initiative was transformed into the NJEA ACCESS Model, an acronym for A Community Collective for Equitable and Sustainable Schools. ACCESS is an opportunity for local associations to partner with full-time and part-time NJEA staff to organize around creating and supporting community schools. ACCESS works with local associations to identify leaders and support them, to create community coalitions, to develop strategic campaigns toward community schools, to work in schools to improve the learning environment for students and promote teacher leadership, and to engage the entire school community around healing and wellness.

Comprehensive, integrated goals

The original goals of the Priority Schools Initiative have been transformed into three comprehensive and integrated goals.

Collective power

The ACCESS Model will harness the collective power of educators, families, students, and the community to improve the learning outcomes for students by supporting local education associations to bargain for the common good. Bargaining for the common good may include developing high-quality professional learning, offering ethnic studies, training for culturally responsive teaching, integrating healing-centered and restorative practices, providing integrated student supports, and expanding learning time and opportunities.

Collaborative relationships

The ACCESS Model will create an environment that cultivates teacher leaders by fostering strong labor-management relationships. At the school building level, labor-management collaboration cultivates teacher leadership expansion, inclusive and collaborative leadership practices, empowered teachers, a community of professional learners, the personal growth of teachers, and an awareness of teachers as integral community resources.

Healing, equity and access

The ACCESS Model will foster an environment that supports the building of a thriving community by addressing healing, equity and access in education. ACCESS engages families and communities through the inclusive leadership of parents and other community members. ACCESS fosters results-oriented decision-making, shared learning, and reflective practices around healing, equity and access. The model partners with community support services that acknowledge and address the impact of trauma.

Local associations and ACCESS

Over the last year, the Camden, Trenton, New Brunswick and Union Township education associations have all embarked on this journey toward social justice in public education. The local associations’ leaders and ACCESS Model consultants have been trained through the NEA Strategic Institute for Community Schools to begin working to identify and support local leadership, create community coalitions, and develop strategic campaigns toward the spread of community schools. This work aims to build a strong education justice coalition that empowers advocates achieve the ACCESS Model goals.

This year has been one of new beginnings, including a new way of thinking about collective action and school improvement. Organizing is hard work, but there has been no time in recent history when it has been more necessary to improve working conditions for educators and learning conditions for students. And there appears to be no other way to shift the giant system that is public education.

We can look to recent examples of successful organizing efforts in Minneapolis, Chicago, Austin, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and others. Those local associations have stepped up to the challenge. It’s New Jersey’s turn to organize strategic campaigns focused on creating the schools that all our students deserve—schools that are designed for the humanity of those that walk through their hallways. 

Amanda Adams is an associate director in the NJEA Professional Development and Instructional Issues Division and a coordinator for the NJEA ACCESS Model program. She can be reached at aadams@njea.org.