Project Reach connects with at-risk school students

To expand support for its at-risk students, Berkeley Township School District three years ago held six meetings with teachers, parents, businesses, nonprofits, the Berkeley Police Department and the Division of Children Protection and Permanency.

Administrators in the New Jersey district—working with guidance counselors, nurses and parents—identified at-risk students struggling socially, academically and at home. “We wanted to get the full picture so we could help the whole child” says Jeff Zito, assistant superintendent of elementary services.

A combination of grants, donations, and discounted materials and services from the community led to the creation of Project Reach—a multi-program approach that helps at-risk students get back on track. Programs include a reading camp, after-school activities and makerspaces.

Berkeley Township School District

Serves pre-K through 6

2,180 students 2 of 4 schools are Title 1

40% of Title I students on free or reduced-price lunch

Approximately 70 homeless families

“The students also developed a stronger love for reading” says Waldron. “That was an amazing benefit, and it truly did make a difference.”

District administrators chose staff members through interview processes, while others required certifications.

For example, teachers interested in Extended School Year—a program that serves all special education students with a specially tailored curriculum using Chromebooks, smartboards and STEM activities—needed a special ed teaching certificate so they could properly address the needs of these learners.

Administrators also required participants in Camp Paw—a summer reading program for students in grades 1 through 6—to have specialized reading training.

Teachers who were selected then discussed responsibilities with the director of their specific program, says Cara Burton, principal of Clara B. Worth School. For instance, the director of Camp Paw leads a staff orientation meeting where responsibilities are outlined with input from the group, she says.

During the summer

Initial funding for Camp Paw came from nonprofit donations, including a $35,000 grant from learning disabilities organizations. Camp leaders match students with teachers based on student data from the previous school year, says Kevin Waldron, assistant principal of Berkeley Township Elementary School.

A single day at Paw consists of multiple activities, including two hours of class time, STEM activities, personal development and field trips. This schedule poses a challenge. “The hardest thing is making sure Camp Paw doesn’t get too big to where it becomes difficult to effectively address the individual needs of our student population” Waldron says.

Two years ago, the superintendent and school board officially added Camp Paw to the budget after student test scores increased.

Bridge Camp, which fills the gap between the school year and summer, has required little to no funding. Various organizations, including the Wildlife Conservatory and county libraries, visit schools at no cost, and local pizza restaurants and ice cream parlors provide discounted food.

After-school programs

Transportation for after school activities was a challenge for many parents. The district received permission from the Berkeley Township Housing Authority, the town council and the school board to use a recreation building for Operation Schoolhouse to give students and teachers access three days per week to computers with Wi-Fi.

Students who live nearby can walk to the building, says Zito. An officer from the local police department provides security at a discounted rate.

The district also received nearly $40,000 from the Ocean County Department of Education for Project Starfish, which offers yoga, STEM activities, music therapy and other soothing exercises for homeless and displaced students (including those who were affected by Hurricane Sandy). The district now offers free transportation, materials and services.

The students’ transiency creates challenges, says Andrea Cimino, principal of H & M Potter School. “We have students in hotels or shelters, so we have to constantly communicate with parents to know where we’re picking up students” Cimino says.

STEAM and Makerspaces

The district receives an “outpouring of support” to create the monthly Makerspace Mondays program, says Steven Rieder, principal of Bayville School. “Parents not normally involved in PTA help, making it into a fun family event.”

Every month, local businesses—including ShopRite, a local hardware store and a dollar store—donate materials for free or at discounted prices.

One week after the end of the school year, the district also hosts four days of hands-on STEAM activities called Camp Invention. The program—available also for students not at risk—requires payment. The district hosts raffles for those who cannot afford it.

A new culture

Two teachers at Berkeley Township Elementary School created the Unified Sports Club for fifth- and sixth-graders to promote athletic inclusivity. The program, made possible by a $35,000 grant from the Special Olympics, now involves the entire district.

Schools now promote inclusiveness every day, and various clubs meet three times per week to play sports and participate in teamwork activities. “It’s shaped the culture of our school” says Waldron. “It’s become a philosophy.”

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