The Piscataway Township schools are among the most diverse in the state. And while the board, administration, families and teachers celebrate that diversity, it offers challenges.

More than 40 languages are spoken in homes throughout the district and first generation English language learner (ELL) students require extra services. Disadvantaged students make up 36 percent of the total student population. A 2014 district-wide study of disproportionality found that like many other districts, disadvantaged students lagged in academic markers, including AP and honors classes and standardized test results, and also received a disproportionate share of disciplinary actions.

During this same period, the Piscataway Board of Education began exploring qualities of effective leadership through monthly Saturday Book Club meetings. Delving into “Mindset” by Carol S. Dweck; “The Pedagogy of Confidence” by Yvette Jackson, and “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R. Covey, the board discussed ways to offer leadership that inspires staff to look at teaching and learning differently. The goal was to provide inspiration that would lead to students working at their highest potential and showing each other continuous kindness and support.

But celebrating cultural differences, working together to end disproportionality, and creating a districtwide culture means more than occasional assemblies and a viable ESL program. It means daily reminders through art and music, bringing together general education and special education students, and looking for ways to increase educational opportunities for every student. It means a program that encompasses both top down and bottom up.

In Piscataway, it means “You, I, We Inspire.”

First the Theme, then the Program The Piscataway board charged its School Climate and Culture Committee with building a tangible “Inspire” program based on their selected theme, You, I, We Inspire, followed by a logo contest for Piscataway High School (PHS) students. The winning logo was branded through prominent placement on the district homepage, calendar and other promotional materials; in banners and signage hung throughout all schools; and in the logo in email signatures.

The overarching goal of You, I, We Inspire is to reach every student and staff member, help them to see their own self-worth, and to value every student, culture, and ability level. It seeks to inspire teachers to think outside-the-box and instill a stronger work ethic in students. The board and administration give principals and teachers freedom to explore partnerships with higher educational institutions and business entities to go beyond traditional school experiences. The Piscataway Education Foundation supports the efforts, offering teacher “Inspire” Grants for creative and non-traditional teaching methods.

Academics and Character Academic programs launched under the Inspire umbrella include Math Potential, a program that identifies fifth-grade students on the cusp of accelerated math and offers structured, individualized help as they transition to middle school and move toward advanced math courses. Jump Ahead, introduced in summer 2016 and now offered throughout the year, offers academic assistance and enrichment in a risk-free environment, using a personalized program that combines digital learning with direct instruction. Partnerships with Rutgers, including the PHS BioMedical Program, offer college-level learning and college credits, to students interested in an academic stretch.

Music and art programs and essay prompts explore the You, I, We Inspire theme. Inventive programs encourage acts of kindness and positive character traits by both students and staff. Peer Buddy programs support integration and acceptance of developmentally disabled students. PHS student mentoring programs connect high-achieving upperclassmen with underachieving younger students, exposing vulnerable students to positive peer attitudes.

Staff wellness also falls under the Inspire umbrella, with classes offered in yoga and Zumba, and nutrition information shared district-wide.

All successes are shared online through a Character Education Toolbox accessed by building principals.

Results While it’s difficult to say You, I, We Inspire is responsible for rising test scores, increased AP participation, decreased discipline referrals, and award-winning programs, all of these are happening in Piscataway schools. In creating a culture of inclusion and encouragement, students feel free to ask questions, admit when they need help, and offer a helping hand to others. Because more students feel accepted and welcomed within their schools, disciplinary incidents decrease.  The You, I, We Inspire program has begun to build a better, stronger, kinder atmosphere in Piscataway Township schools.

This year, the National School Boards Association recognized Piscataway’s program with its Grand Prize Magna Award for districts with enrollment from 5,000 – 20,000.

“School climate is a critical element of a safe and secure learning environment; it’s a key to student well-being and success,” said Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod, NJSBA executive director, who attended the awards ceremony with Mike McClure, NJSBA vice president for finance, at the NSBA annual conference in March. “We congratulate the Piscataway Board of Education on receiving national recognition for this innovative program that has such a positive impact on school culture, and promotes  respect, character development and academic success.”

But the Piscataway school district isn’t resting on its laurels; the board believes that the targeted work of the winning program has only just begun.

Judy Palermo is public information officer/webmaster at the Piscataway school district.