Joseph F. Berenato
District working to provide
Mento: 40% poverty level makes reaching students ‘a challenge’
HAMMONTON—As the Hammonton Public School district continues to cope with providing for its students during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, one of the largest hurdles it faces is how to ensure the health and educational well-being of those in its charge.
“Being a 40 percent poverty level district, it is a challenge reaching out, but we had made available earlier, this year, free Wi-Fi and computers for the people who didn’t have it at their home, working with Comcast. We provided hotspots, and, of course, they got the Chromebooks,” Hammonton Board of Education President Sam Mento III said.
Steven Minchak, the District Coordinator of Technology, explained further.
“To help those students who do not have internet access available at home, the district has purchased T-Mobile hotspots. Over 150 families have received these units at no cost to the students. They have been distributed through the Technology Department. along with the school-issued Chromebook or tablet,” Minchak said.
Dr. Michael Nolan, the principal at Hammonton Middle School, said that these efforts have helped bridge the technological divide, allowing families of all socioeconomic backgrounds access to the technology necessary to participate in remote learning.
“We’ve purchased a ton of T-Mobile hotspots, and we’ve made those available to all our students who don’t have internet service or that couldn’t get internet service through Comcast for whatever reason. Each of the students all have Chromebooks, and the teachers are better prepared and are better utilizing the technology that we have available to them for our instruction. I would say that divide has certainly been minimized with these efforts that we’ve been able to do. We’ve made huge progress in that case,” Nolan said.
Minchak said that the district is always available to address concerns or to troubleshoot.
“Technology assistance is available through a help desk email for each school,” Minchak said.
Mento concurred, noting that there are “always issues with technology.”
“I would encourage anyone from the public who is having a hard time with internet or computer services for their student to contact their building principal, and we’ll be sure to have one of our IT people get in touch with you and straighten the problem out,” Mento said.
Board of Education member Kelli Fallon said that, thanks to the efforts to get such technology into the hands of each student, the lack of such equipment has not been identified as a major barrier to education.
“There might be some specific cases where their internet went out, or there might be isolated incidents where one’s internet isn’t working, or, if someone has a hotspot, it’s not working. But, as long as people make an effort to sign in, and if there’s a problem, they contact the school, the school will fix it,” Fallon said.
Because of the readily available, free hotspots and Chromebooks, Fallon said, identifying other obstacles to education becomes more important if a student fails to regularly sign in to class.
“If they’re not signing in, or they’re not making contact, that’s one of the first questions we ask to make sure that they have access to it; if they don’t, we have it available for anyone who needs it ... If they’re consistently not signing in, we’re going to make efforts to contact them,” Fallon said.
Board of Education member John Lyons agreed with his colleague, noting the importance of identifying such obstacles—and the difficulties presented by a lack of full-time, in-person learning.
“One of the leading ways to identify food insecurity, abuse, problems in the home is a classroom teacher. Classroom teachers know their students. They know when something is the matter, and they know how to get engaged when their kids are in crisis. We’re not able to do that as effectively as we normally are because kids aren’t in school,” Lyons said.
Michael Ryan, the District Supervisor of Guidance, said that the school has been taking steps to address food insecurity with all children in the district under the age of 18.
“Any family in need within the reach of the district has access to free school-prepared breakfast and lunch meals. Phone calls with free meal information are made periodically in English and Spanish. Meals are being delivered to the homes of families who cannot pick them up,” Ryan said.
Ryan also said that the district’s guidance counselors have been performing outreach activities to meet the needs of their students while at home.
“Counselors strive to maintain contact with all families in need of services. Counselors are in constant communication with teachers and are available to make home visits to help assess the needs of families and provide help with all types of matters,” Ryan said.
Additionally, Ryan noted, the district has been promoting the services of The Devils Pantry, which provides food, clothing and gift cards.
“The Devils Pantry at the high school is available to students, and counselors have utilized it for students in school as well as for students who are remote learners,” Ryan said.
To further efforts to meet the needs of students, Assistant Superintendent of Schools Tammy Leonard said that the district has instituted a Schoolwide Planning Team under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Title I, as defined by the U.S. Department of Education, provides “financial assistance to local educational agencies (LEAs) and schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet challenging state academic standards ... Schools in which children from low-income families make up at least 40 percent of enrollment are eligible to use Title I funds to operate schoolwide programs that serve all children in the school in order to raise the achievement of the lowest-achieving students.”
“We’ve always received Title I funds, but we were what’s called a Targeted Assistance Program. In a Targeted Assistance Program, you can only use those federal funds to provide services for students who are basically at-risk of school failure,” Leonard said.
Leonard said that, last year, the district completed the application process to transition to what is known as Schoolwide Title I.
“In a Targeted Assistance Program, if I was going to buy a program using Title I funds, it could only be used by Title I students; it couldn’t be used by anyone else. With a schoolwide program, if you decide you’re going to buy something, the goal should be to benefit all students—but especially your Title I students, your students who might be struggling. With a schoolwide program, you have greater latitude to make program changes that will benefit everyone but, of course, your struggling learners as well,” Leonard said.
Leonard said that the four Schoolwide Planning Teams—there is one in for each building in the district—are a requirement of the Title I program as a means to gather input from stakeholders in the community.
“On each committee, we have invited community members, we’ve invited parents; we’ve invited, at the high school level, in the past we’ve had students participate. Basically, what we have done, we’ve always had a school advisory committee in each building, so we have transitioned that into being our schoolwide committees. We now call that our Schoolwide Planning Team. We’re using that to discuss whatever is going on in the buildings, and also part of it is planning for gathering input from stakeholders regarding our use of federal funds each year,” Leonard said.
Leonard said that the teams meet four times each year to gather input.
“We share what our goals are, as far as using our Title I money. Things have changed, definitely, this year, as far as how the things that we normally do for our Title I students, we weren’t able to do. We are figuring out other ways to provide support,” Leonard said.
Nolan, who serves on the middle school’s Schoolwide Planning Team, explained further.
“We meet with parents and stakeholders in the community, and board members and teachers. We try to get a good mix of people to give us some feedback on what’s happening in the building, or what’s happening throughout the school and what the kids are going through and what they’re working with. Then, we try to make some adjustments and plans from there to make sure that we’re filling those gaps and addressing those issues that we have,” Nolan said.
Editor’s Note: This story was produced thanks to a reporting grant facilitated by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University and funded by New Jersey Children’s Foundation.