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Friday, December 09, 2022
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Leave it to Teach NJ to enlist the state legislature to take an innovative new New Jersey state government program that assists day schools and yeshivot in providing STEM education and make it much better.

Four years ago, Teach NJ, part of the national Teach Coalition—an arm of the Orthodox Union—persuaded leaders in the New Jersey State Senate and Assembly to pass a bill signed by the governor that established a pioneering program to increase STEM teaching in nonpublic schools. Under the New Jersey department of education STEM program, New Jersey state allocated funds to pay public school STEM teachers who would teach STEM classes “after hours” in private schools and parochial schools.

Because they’re not the type of group to rest on their laurels, Teach NJ got to work immediately to make sure that public school teachers and nonpublic schools’ administrators knew about and considered participating in the new New Jersey state program. Teach NJ’s government maximization division facilitated meetings with nonpublic schools and public school districts, conducted individual outreach to nonpublic school teachers, crafted email campaigns and held webinars to raise awareness of the program, resulting in an impressive gradual adoption of the program. In the first year after the bill’s passage, three nonpublic schools employing six public school STEM teachers took part in the program; in the second year, 13 schools employing 20 teachers took part; and in the third year (this current school year), 23 schools employing 41 teachers took part.

In the hundreds of conversations he’s had on this topic in his work in the government maximization office over the past three plus years, Teach NJ’s associate director of government programs, Adam Katz, learned three things: (1) that there are more nonpublic schools interested in participating in the program than there are eligible public school teachers willing to teach extra hours; (2) one of the biggest obstacles to motivating more public school teachers to participate was the fact that the legislation funding the program only paid the teachers for classroom instruction, and not for preparation time; and (3) the national teacher shortage was exacerbating the situation.

Taking account of all this feedback, in the 2022/2023 budget season Teach NJ leaders and activists approached New Jersey state legislative leaders and asked for a new bill to make improvements to the prior legislation. A press release issued by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s office on November 2, titled “Governor Murphy Signs Legislation Expanding Access to STEM Education,” signaled that the new bill—championed by Senators Vin Gopal and Shirley Turner in the New Jersey State Senate and Assemblymen Gary Schaer and Sterley Stanley in the New Jersey Assembly—had now become law.

To underscore the role of Teach NJ in this remarkable legislative victory, the governor’s press release concluded with a statement from Teach NJ’s executive director, Katie Katz, who stated: “This innovative program has expanded access to a STEM education for many communities, and these changes will further enhance the ability of teachers to participate and for schools to utilize the educational opportunity it provides to their students.”

As Katie Katz and Adam Katz explained in a phone call with The Jewish Link, the new legislation instituted three essential changes. It increases the compensation to public school STEM teachers providing instruction in nonpublic schools by 25%, to now reflect 15 minutes of prep time for every hour of teaching. The bill also extends the program to public school STEM teachers who have been teaching these topics in public schools prior to when New Jersey adopted more recent credential standards for teaching STEM topics; in essence, the new bill “grandfathered in” the program teachers who were already “grandfathered in” by New Jersey state to continue teaching STEM after the standards of training changed. This expands teacher eligibility for this program. Lastly, the legislation also simplifies and streamlines the application process itself, removing its most challenging component altogether.

Judging from the comments of two public school STEM teachers who have participated in the New Jersey department of education STEM program, and are featured in a video posted on the Teach NJ website, this program is well designed to appeal to qualified public school teachers.

“I was welcomed from day one and I felt that I was truly part of the community,” said Jeanne Ziobrio, STEM instructor at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston. “What I truly love about this program is that I get to create a curriculum and work with students in a flexible manner, at times that work within my schedule.”

“We all know that us teachers don’t get paid a ton of money,” said Charles Gallian, a STEM instructor at Heichal HaTorah in Teaneck. “The way these hours work, it fits in perfectly with after school activities. The (New Jersey department of education STEM) program is very well organized and they do everything in their power to help teachers like me to participate.”

Day-school leaders are also big fans of the New Jersey department of education STEM program, as evidenced by this comment from Rabbi Michael Ribalt, head of school at RPRY in Edison: “RPRY has been able to enhance our students’ understanding of Hashem’s world with a strong STEM curriculum, facilitated by our state’s funding. The program has provided for us the opportunity to expand our STEM education curriculum to encompass all students, starting in pre-school, without adding extra staff costs. It has also enabled us to expand the pool of highly qualified STEM educators available to us. We look forward to the enhancements to the program the legislature and governor have approved through Teach NJ’s advocacy.”

“This momentous achievement was championed by our tireless legislative partners. Assemblyman Gary Schaer (assembly policy chair) and Senator Vin Gopal (senate education chair) fought for the creation of the STEM Educator Grant Program and they have continually advocated for strengthening New Jersey’s nonpublic schools. As prime sponsors, they were critical for delivering vital resources for our students. We are also thankful to Senator Shirley Turner and Assemblyman Sterley Stanley for their support and commitment to educational equality,” explained Katie Katz.

“The improved STEM Educator Grant Program is a crucial step in ensuring educational equity for every student in New Jersey, regardless of what school they attend,” said Assemblyman Gary Schaer. “Generous state-funded grants will create needed opportunities for our highly qualified public school teachers in nonpublic schools that cannot provide advanced STEM programming. This legislation represents an essential component of New Jersey’s historic investments in emerging technologies and groundbreaking innovations.”

Teach NJ states that the new program rules will apply to public school STEM teachers who are hired to teach in nonpublic schools in the 2023-2024 school year. Teach NJ is happy to guide public school STEM teachers and nonpublic school teachers on how to apply to participate in this program. For more information, please see: https://teachcoalition.org/stemnj/.

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