One of my favorite educational authors is Deborah Meier. A passionate advocate for children, teachers and parents as well as a champion in the school reform movement, Meier explains the power of creating classrooms as democratic learning communities when she writes, “Teaching is listening and learning is talking.”

When we think about meaningful communication, we recognize that listening is equally as important as talking. Listening requires the listener to practice patience as she “seeks first to understand.” Mindful listening is an essential component of healthy and thriving organizations. This type of open listening allows us to challenge our own assumptions, uncover fresh ideas, and enhance decision making.

Last year, we asked Robbinsville residents to take part in a community values survey to help us understand what you value about our school district and to assist us as we shape the educational vision for our students. We were thrilled to receive 966 responses from a wide perspective of citizens throughout the Robbinsville Schools community. As we reviewed the data and listened for common themes, here is what we heard:

Class size matters. Over 500 responses communicated the importance of keeping class size to a minimum. This is consistent with current research pointing out that especially among elementary and middle aged children, learning is best supported within the context of a smaller, more personalized environment. The research also suggests that smaller classes help to reduce achievement gaps, enhance the quality of instruction and provide more positive work conditions to retain teachers. The Robbinsville Board of Education is committed whenever possible to keeping K-5 class size to 22 or fewer students and, in grades 6-8, to 24 students.

Maintain and take care of our facilities. An overwhelming majority of respondents strongly agreed that maintaining and caring for our facilities is an essential priority. To this end, as a way to be responsive to our taxpayers, the Board of Education continually seeks alternative revenue sources as a means to repair, replace, and enhance our buildings. Facilities rentals, proceeds from the R.E.D. program, and a variety of shared services agreements have been used to offset the costs of building projects such as a new playground at Sharon School, refinishing the gym floor at Pond and resurfacing the high school tennis courts. We are also anticipating a new Energy Savings Improvement Project to assist us in this regard.

Students must be taught the technology skills necessary for success in the 21st century. This year, students in grades 3 through 7 participate in a one-to-one Chromebook initiative. We plan to incorporate students in Grade 8 in the 2018-2019 school year. Additionally, RHS is in its second year of a Bring Your Own Device initiative which encourages students to bring their own laptop or Chromebook to school.

As we measured the success of students’ use of Chromebooks for learning, we found that the one-to-one initiative has strengthened students’ ability to collaborate with their peers, communicate their ideas, engage in a direct interaction with the curriculum, and increase and helped to improve 21st century skills. Technology used in this way is transforming the learning experience by providing more access to research and enhancing the ability to create projects and opportunities to think in innovative ways.

Robbinsville must be competitive with top performing schools and provide a challenging and enriched curriculum. According to the survey results, community members clearly expect Robbinsville students perform at levels consistent with or better than their peers in top performing New Jersey school districts. This requires that we provide a well-rounded and robust curriculum including opportunities in world languages, the arts, and technology at all grade levels.

Additionally, the majority of respondents support after-school programs which allow students to pursue their passions, strengthen their bodies and minds, and to think and create in new ways. Research shows that students who participate in extracurricular activities tend to perform better academically. We believe that all students deserve access to challenging and enriching courses. We also believe that experiences like these develop real world skills and create balance for a more well-rounded student.

As we reviewed the feedback from the open ended responses, we identified themes that challenge us to raise questions and problem solve.

Taxes. Many residents are understandably frustrated with the amount of taxes they pay to support our schools. One parent stated that, “it is just not realistic to expect people to want to pay a high tax rate when they have no kids left in school.” Another suggested that any increase in taxes go directly to maintain class size, continue to provide extracurricular activities, and strengthen school security. We heard you loudly and clearly. We understand that we must pay careful attention to the rising tax burden placed upon our residents.

This past year, with the help of a small, deeply committed group of citizens, we took on our state legislators in Trenton. Our efforts yielded an additional $631,042. Know that we will continue the fight for our citizens and for our fair share of state aid in Trenton while, here at home, we will continue to work tirelessly to generate sustainable streams of alternative revenue while being mindful of every dollar we spend.

Teacher Retention. Respondents expressed concern over the loss of many seasoned and dynamic teachers. Our residents believe that the quality of teachers directly impact our students and their achievement levels. As we continue to recruit and hire passionate and dynamic educators we invest in them by providing ongoing professional learning opportunities that provide essential knowledge and skills needed for student learning.

The Board is currently in negotiations with our teachers. We are hopeful that the process will result in an equitable contract, one that will encourage all of our valuable staff members to consider Robbinsville Schools their home away from home now and in the years to come.

Communication. As one resident remarked, “The success of a school depends on good communication.” Communication is a complicated process and should not be limited to information sharing. This article, for instance, is one more formal piece of communication. However, communicating is more than telling. By its very definition, communication is the “open exchange of ideas.” Yes, this includes talking but, more importantly, true communication requires paying attention to words and nonverbal cues, listening without judgment and engaging with one another to actively participate in a common cause.

This survey is one of many steps in our listening to what the Robbinsville community values and identifies as important. It has allowed us to ask deeper questions, reflect and analyze and become better listeners. Because of your feedback we have set the following goals:

  • Continue the fight for our fair share of state aid
  • Seek additional sustainable streams of revenue including solar, cell tower, Energy Savings Improvement Project
  • Commit resources to support teachers
  • Plan events to share, listen, invite, and engage our stakeholders
  • Develop responsiveness protocols at each building and department level

As we journey forward, we will continue to practice openhearted and mindful listening as a way to honor our firm commitment to our students, staff and community members. Please visit the Robbinsville Schools homepage to access a PowerPoint of the survey results.
Kathie Foster is the superintendent of Robbinsville Schools.