As the second wave of COVID-19 intensifies in New Jersey, the perspectives of two school leaders are gaining attention throughout the state. Their opinions and expertise are well-received as educators, students and families look for ways to move forward this year and come out of this challenging time stronger.
Dr. Howard Lerner, superintendent of Bergen County Special Services School District and chairman of the New Jersey Joint Council of County Special Services School Districts, recently published a guest column in the Star-Ledger, which went out to a broader audience on NJ.com. In it, he called for a celebration of teachers’ heroic efforts this year, while noting the great need for more people to enter the profession.
“Even before the pandemic, New Jersey was producing fewer teacher candidates than it did a decade ago,” he wrote. “The new online learning formats, altered schedules and layers of precautions could cause a further dip in our candidate pool. The greatest impact will likely be in special education, where the job already comes with an additional set of challenges.”
A report published by New Jersey Policy Perspective in May notes a 49% drop in graduates from teacher preparation programs between 2009 and 2018. That same report suggests making the teaching profession more attractive by increasing “the respect and appreciation shown to New Jersey’s educators.”
Doing his part, Lerner publicly praised the work of special educators working throughout the state – especially those in special services school districts – for approaching their jobs with an unwavering commitment to students’ success, even in this nontraditional school year.
His colleague in Burlington County, Dr. Christopher Nagy, also recently shared his thoughts on the current school year, with insights most valuable for other school leaders. In a podcast produced by the New Jersey Association of School Administrators (NJASA) and the New Jersey Education and Research Foundation, called “NJASA Frontline Leadership for Extraordinary Times,” Nagy provided some words of advice: “Be present and be a solution to the staff.” He continued, “We don’t want to add to the burdens of our teachers and staff members; they are taxed to the max right now….”
Nagy, who is superintendent of Burlington County Special Services School District, also took the opportunity to highlight the work of his team. “They are doing a phenomenal job working twice as hard as they would normally, trying to migrate between virtual and in-person learning while juggling their own family needs.”
This year, Nagy has worked to empower his team, relying on members’ unique expertise and creativity to find ways to overcome new obstacles. “The thing that I’ve learned the most during this is the ability to focus on emergent distributed leadership. I’m rethinking leadership, looking at our nurses, custodians, teacher leaders, counselors, even our students – as individuals or in teams – as I look for different leadership roles within our district.”
Nagy said that the strength of staff and programs at special services school districts is something that he regularly touts, as marketing to families and sending districts is equally as time consuming as hiring in the midst of both a pandemic and teaching shortage.
“I call our campuses, ‘the campuses of miracles,’” he said. “We want to let the world know our success stories and the value we provide to our sending school districts.”