New Jersey lawmakers move to create ‘community schools’

The General Assembly Education Committee approved several measures Thursday that would address student mental health and academic equity.

A classrooms inside the new Camden High School

File photo: A classroom inside Camden High School. (P. Kenneth Burns/WHYY)

This month, New Jersey lawmakers returned from summer recess, just as kids returned to school from summer break.

With increased attention on issues like student mental health and safety, academic equity, and sex education standards, the Legislature has eyed education reform.

The General Assembly Education Committee approved several measures Thursday that would address some of those issues.

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One bill, introduced by Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), would create a five-year community school pilot program. According to the National Education Association, or NEA, community schools are “public schools that provide services and support that fit each neighborhood’s needs.”

Essentially, community schools are a collaboration between state and local government, nonprofit organizations, educators, health professionals, social workers, and youth and community development specialists to provide a more holistic educational experience for students.

The trend has spread across the nation, with community schools sprouting up in 39 states, the National Education Association said.

The federal government has allocated about $140 million to community school initiatives, according to the NEA.

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“Community Schools are an ongoing national conversation. And I can state without reservation that they are the future of public schools, not just here, but throughout the country,” Jasey said, at Thursday’s committee hearing. “ New York, for example, has had community schools in New York City for more than 25 years. It’s time that we caught up.”

New Jersey’s bill would enable 21 schools, one in each county, to apply to be part of the pilot program.

Assemblywoman Michele Matsikoudis (R-Morris) shared why she supported the measure.

“I have three children, one of them went through the disability program, she was special needs,” Matsikoudis said. “As her mom, [I] partnered with the school, with our local churches, with our school counselors … and I don’t take full credit for why she has been successful. I said that it was a group effort.”

“When I look at this piece of legislation, I absolutely love it. And I think it is going to help so many children, and it’ll give them a stronger fighting chance than they may have had,” Matsikoudis said.

The committee also advanced a bill that supporters said would modernize expectations for school guidance counselors, and establish a state school counselor liaison.

Colleges and Universities that offer school counselor certifications would be required to train candidates on social and emotional learning programming, among other changes outlined in the bill.

“When you were with your school counselor, think about that experience, and how much better it would have been if we armed them with the tools and resources that they went to school and paid for their education to do,” said Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D-Hudson), the legislation’s sponsor.

It comes as schools around the country grapple with student mental health in the wake of mass school shootings and after the coronavirus pandemic isolated students from their peers.

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