With summer winding down and September just around the corner, parents and children alike turn their thoughts to the coming school year (often with opposing levels of excitement), and they are joined, of course, by the Burlington Township school district, which has been busy setting the wheels back in motion.
The Sun sat down with Superintendent Mary Ann Bell and Director of Human Resources and Community Relations Liz Scott to discuss this process and what parents can expect in the 2019-2020 school year.
Ensuring each year gets off on the right foot in September starts with a lot of planning, say the administrators. In June, when the school year has barely come to a close, the district begins planning for the year to come, establishing its annual All Students Achieving Plan, an outline of its efforts to achieve its goals in areas like student achievement, school climate and safety and community involvement.
“It’s a very cyclical kind of planning,” said Bell. “ You can’t have a good school year if, in your budget cycle, you haven’t really thought about what you might be doing the next year.”
As in any district, student safety is a top priority for Burlington Township schools and a significant portion of the yearly plan. According to Bell, the district has maintained a working relationship with the local police department and Endeavor Emergency Squad and has recently involved them in a series of drills regarding an active-threat situation.
Upcoming drills will focus on reunification following a mass event.
“That’s a very big challenge logistically, so we’re working through that,” said Bell.
Each building in the district will also be implementing lockdown buttons that, when activated, will automatically call the police, make a PA announcement, activate strobe lights and lock exterior doors. Students will be notified that a false alarm could result in police charges to impress on them the seriousness of the new system.
“It’s another layer of protection because we know that response is critical, and quick response is the only thing that helps. We’re very fortunate to have four SROs (student resource officers) but it’s really important that it happens fast,” said Bell.
In addition to the physical safety of students, Bell says district staff and SROs have been attending special training sessions in youth mental health first aid. Much of the focus of the training centered around the potential for suicide with today’s youth.
When it comes to the community involvement portion of the yearly plan, Scott acts as the voice of the district, keeping parents updated with regular emails about the goings on at their child’s school. The final weeks of summer see a slew of messages to parents with calendars, important dates and information about district offerings like before- and after-care programs.
Scott stresses that this is the time for parents who are new to the district to register their child for the new school year, not in September.
“It’s important that they register now because some people seem to think if you register that day, you come in with a bookbag ready to start school – it doesn’t work like that,” said Scott.
On Aug. 1, Bell submitted an application to the state Department of Education for state funding with hopes to expand the district’s current preschool program offerings. Notification of acceptance will be received Sept. 3 should they be approved by the DOE. Classrooms for the expanded preschool program would need to be open by Oct. 1.
According to Bell, an early reading initiative is being explored this year for the district’s kindergarten through third-graders. The initiative is part of an early literacy grant the district had applied for and includes new resources and training from the state.
Bell says administrators have been working on the initiative through the summer and teachers will be introduced upon their return.
“Obviously, reading is the foundation of anything else you’re going to do in life and certainly anything else you’re going to do in your educational existence. It starts with reading,” said Bell.
This year the district will be seeing several personnel changes take place at the administrative level.
Last year they began the lengthy process of narrowing down candidates to replace Burlington Township Middle School at Springside Principal Larry Penny, following his retirement. After seeking input from the community by way of an online survey and interviewing a long list of candidates, the district welcomed its choice to fill the seat, Matthew Andris, on July 1.
Bernice Young Elementary also welcomed a new administrator this summer, Casey Kocsis, the new vice principal.
After 30 years in the district, Fountain Woods Elementary School Principal John Johnson has retired, and Paul Spaventa will be serving as interim principal until a replacement can be secured. According to Bell, a process similar to that used to find a new middle school principal will begin this December for Fountain Woods, again involving the public in the decision-making process.