A few weeks ago the NJSBA Board of Directors approved the Association’s new 2018-2020 Strategic Plan, “Vision 2020.” In developing the plan, we conducted surveys and held input sessions to assess the attitudes of NJSBA’s membership and staff, as well as superintendents. We held planning forums to identify the organization’s strengths and challenges and to develop a vision for the future. The result, I’m pleased to report, is a roadmap that will guide NJSBA for the next three years, help advance school district governance and empower local boards to ensure the well-being and success of every child.

The plan has five goal areas. At the moment, I’d like to focus on the first goal statement, which says “Every New Jersey student will have the tools to be successful in pursuit of their chosen life goals in a safe, healthy, caring environment.” One of the objectives under that goal area underscores the importance of a caring environment by setting, as an Association aim, the goal of broadening the definition of achievement to include social-emotional learning.

As a former teacher, principal and superintendent, I know about the importance of social-emotional learning. Students who have effective social and emotional skills can manage their emotions, resolve conflicts, make responsible decisions, communicate effectively and interact positively, and therefore, thrive in school settings as well as the workplace. Schools that work to develop character and social-emotional learning in students have improved climates, decreased disciplinary problems, increased academic achievement, and are safer in every way.

NJSBA has been in the forefront of promoting social-emotional learning.

Most recently, at Workshop 2017, we were delighted to have Dr. Maurice Elias as one of our keynote speakers. Dr. Elias, the director of the Rutgers Social Emotional and Character Development Lab, is a renowned expert and author in the field. In his remarks, he urged us to consider students’ social-emotional character development to be as essential as academic skills.

 We have learned about the critical importance of school climate issues and the need for young people to have places to go within the school community where people will listen and render support for their emotional needs. Research into school shootings, starting with the events at Columbine High School in 1999, has emphasized the need for such outlets.

I saw the need firsthand when I was superintendent of schools in Madison. The district had an exemplary school resource officer who worked closely with the guidance department and other faculty members to develop a climate that made the high school feel safe and secure, and provided options for students who needed an adult to turn to in a time of trouble. This particular officer developed such a trusting relationship with students that he was instrumental in preventing a student suicide. I was forever grateful for his presence in our school.

This issue of School Leader features a look at another New Jersey school district that has made students’ mental health a priority. I urge you to read the article, beginning on page 22, on Ocean City’s mental health and wellness initiatives, “Tackling Teen Suicide.”

These issues are heart wrenching, but we must deal with them in a forthright manner. We must build schools that provide a safe, healthy and caring environment. All student achievement – including learning social and emotional skills – flows from that.