The NJ Community Schools Coalition (NJCSC) is a 6-year-old nonprofit that brings together public education advocates and educators committed to expanding community schools throughout our state.
NJCSC was formed to support community school approaches as a way of strengthening democracy and advancing equity through the public schools. This positive vision of public education was a counter-weight and alternative to the mistrust of and assaults on New Jersey’s public schools. (During this time, our public schools were experiencing paralyzing and compounding yearly State aid funding shortfalls; partisan divisiveness around the role and number of charter schools and possibility of adopting education vouchers; and a Governor who gleefully attacked teachers and teacher unions).
The impetus for the formation of NJCSC came in 2016. That was when Mercer Street Friends (MSF), the lead nonprofit agency in the Trenton Full-Service Community Schools initiative, hosted a screening of the documentary “Oyler: One School, One Year,” in order to highlight the vision and impact of community schools.
Julia Sass Rubin, the board chair (at the time) of the pro-public school parent organization, Save Our Schools NJ (SOSNJ), felt inspired by the unifying, community-building vision of community schools. After the screening, she was introduced to Bryan Murdock, the director of the Center for Community Engagement at Montclair State University, the lead agency for the Full-Service Community School initiative in two schools in Orange, NJ. Bryan already had been meeting with community school supporters around the state about forming a coalition.
Together, these two organized the first community schools convening, held in 2016 at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. They also formed NJCSC to advocate for the expansion of community schools to more districts, while focusing on the critical role that public schools can play in strengthening communities across the state.
NJCSC was structured as a satellite project of SOSNJ, with SOSNJ Community Organizing (the 501c3 arm of SOSNJ) serving as the fiscal agent.
A small amount of funding from two private NJ foundations allowed SOSNJ to hire two part-time coordinators for NJCSC. These coordinators oversaw subsequent semi-annual Community School Convenings, all held at the Bloustein School. The Convenings served as 1-day gatherings of 80-100 stakeholders and were used as a way of disseminating the community school framework to legislators, policy-makers, educators, and the general public (both Mary Roche and Jose Munoz from the Coalition for Community Schools served as keynote speakers at some of the Convenings).
The NJCSC coordinators also circulated a survey in 2017 to all 550 NJ superintendents, with the support of the NJ Association of School Administrators (NJASA). The responses helped shape NJCSC’s publication of “A Scan of Community School Models Across New Jersey’s Public Schools: Promoting an Equity Agenda While Better Serving the Educational, Physical, and Mental Health Needs of Students and Families.” The report highlighted the need for additional resources and technical assistance to support community school implementation in a wide variety of districts in the state, all of whom were struggling with how best to prioritize services for a student population which was becoming poorer and more diverse.
Forming a Governance Structure
In 2018, NJCSC formalized its governance structure. It did so in part as a way of strengthening its efforts at building support for proposed legislation it helped draft, asking for State funds to support a pilot expansion of community schools.
Seven individuals became the original board members. The new Board intentionally included three individuals with direct experience with community schools, all of whom were serving at lead nonprofit agencies involved in the three Full-Service Community School sites in NJ— Bryan Murdock working in Orange; Dr. Anniesha Walker, who oversaw the implementation of community schools in Trenton; and Rosie Grant, executive director of the Paterson Education Fund, one of the lead agencies in Paterson. The fourth member, Julie Borst, was one of the original NJCSC coordinators along with being a well-known parent advocate for special education students, and by that time had taken over as executive director of SOSNJ Community Organizing. The fifth and sixth members represented each of the major teachers’ unions: Donna Chiera, the president of AFT-NJ, and Sean Spiller, who at the time served as vice-president of NJEA (and who now serves as president). The final member, Melanie Schulz, served in her personal capacity, but works at one of the leading New Jersey education associations.
Julie was selected as Board President. The other co-coordinator at the time, Greg Stankiewicz, became NJCSC’s statewide coordinator (and only staff member), bringing to his role the experience of being a sitting school board member and serving on the board of another of the state’s education associations.
How NJCSC’s Board Strengthens its Advocacy and Leadership Abilities
One of the unique features of NJCSC’s governance structure is how many of its Board members are involved with New Jersey’s leading state-level education advocacy organizations. This allows NJCSC to rely on their advice and input about how to navigate the State policy environment and more easily reach superintendents; principals; teachers; and families.
Having three members of the Board involved with the three Full-Service Community School sites in our state also keeps NJCSC grounded in a better understanding of the conditions at the school- and district-levels, and the types of obstacles that schools face before they can become effective community schools (for example, the need to change State Medicaid regulations to make it easier to open school-based health clinics). Together, Board members’ ability to provide institutional support strengthens NJCSC’s effectiveness at educating stakeholders about community schools.
NJCSC’s board members and statewide coordinator also have been working hard to serve as strong partners for other state education partnerships, such as the Our Children/Our Schools statewide advocacy network. That allows NJCSC to partner in strong educational efforts already underway in New Jersey while building trust with potential future partners.
As just one example, in 2022 NJCSC submitted a Full-Service Community school application for a four-district, university-assisted community school initiative that would be housed at Saint Elizabeth University in Morristown, NJ; would work with the national nonprofit Communities In Schools; partner with the Rutgers University Labor Management Collaborative; and draw upon the expertise of a Seton Hall University professor for an independent evaluation. The application includes a request for funding to allow NJCSC to create the state’s first community school Technical Assistance Center (TAC), housed at Saint Elizabeth University. The TAC would serve as a statewide resource, while becoming the backbone entity for NJCSC, helping strengthen its capacity.
The Board is now in the process of considering adding new members and talking about forming an Advisory Committee as NJCSC continues to look to strengthen partnerships on behalf of the students, families, and communities of this state. The new Advisory Committee would include experts from other policy sectors, such as healthcare and workforce development, to help provide additional guidance for accessing services that could be helpful to the needs of students in individual schools across the state.
For more information about NJCSC, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
NJCSC—CCS v2 description of governance 9-16-22
Special thanks to Greg Stankiewicz for writing this case study.