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DOE Digest Episode 12: Engaging Faith-Based Organizations, February 13, 2020

Note: The audio versions of all episodes are available on the DOE Digest webpage.

Introduction

[upbeat background music]

Dr. Lamont Repollet: I’m Dr. Lamont Repollet, New Jersey’s Commissioner of Education. Welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. It is a platform for information exchange, in which the Department will highlight the work being done by innovative and transformative educators around the state.

I have been working to redesign the Department of Education to what I call NJDOE 2.0. This podcast is one of the ways that we utilize our digital platform to help strengthen teaching, leading and learning, and increase educational equity for the 1.4 million students across New Jersey. I hope you enjoy today’s topic.

Ken:  Hello and welcome to DOE Digest. I'm your host, Ken Bond. If you've listened to this podcast or joined a #NJEdPartners Twitter chat, then you've experienced some of the professional learning that my office, the Office of the Professional Learning Network, offers.

One other opportunity that we have coming up involves our Lighthouse School Districts. These are districts that are identified by the New Jersey Department of Education for lighting the way for others. The New Jersey Department of Education is calling the first week of March "Lighthouse Week."

During this week, Lighthouse school districts and charter schools are going to open up their doors for others to come in and join with them in professional learning. They're going to present on what they've done to get improvement in their district or charter, and they're also going to allow for folks who visit to come and see classrooms and learn firsthand what their practices look like. This is going to be an amazing opportunity that I'm going to be taking part in and that many other Department of Education staff will attend, as well. Please register for this event on the NJDOE events page. You can find the NJDOE events page by just googling "NJDOE Events."  It should be the first thing that pops up. We're thrilled about this opportunity and can't wait to see you there.

Alright, let's get to the episode now. For this episode we're taking Commissioner Repollet's vision for building relationships and bridges with faith-based organizations. He recently held a summit with faith-based leaders to talk about education and how they viewed education from their positions as faith-based leaders.

I was able to sit down with one of the attendees, Reverend David Jefferson Junior, and talked to him about how he views education in his position.

[begin interview with Reverend David Jefferson, Junior]

Reverend David Jefferson, Junior.

David: My name is Reverend David Jefferson Junior. I am affiliated with Metropolitan Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey where I serve as the youth pastor there. I'm also a CEO of my educational consulting company, Dreams for Youth, entitled the Ready Set Grow Academy Program.

Ken: So, the Commissioner brought faith-based leaders together and was really excited to hear about their vision,

David: Yeah.

Ken: and I wanted to ask you, when it comes to faith-based leaders and community organizations, they have a vested interest in the well-being of youth in their congregation. So, can you talk about ways that they can assist educators in advancing success of students in their schools?

David: First off, I want to salute the commissioner and this entire team for moving the bar to the highest degree in becoming first in education in the state of New Jersey and throughout the nation. That is a big accolade. But when we look at what the Commissioner has kind of put into place, extending I would say, Ken, [an] olive branch to faith-based groups, it's exciting, but most importantly, it's--it's--it's needed.

Ken: When it comes to coming alongside and looking at students as whole students, not just the school-self and the home- self, and all of the different areas that-- that students are in,

David: [murmurs in agreement]

Ken: How can--how can schools, school leaders and educators really think about fostering relationships that will--that will advance the whole student well-being.

David: You said the key word in your question-- relationships. I think that building relationships with faith-based institutions can provide a better platform for there to be engagement, and also to achieve the mark. When you're looking at whom we're serving, we're serving the student.

My young members, my--my--my young people who are in my ministry, they attend public schools in the city of Newark. They attend charter schools in the city of Newark. And so for the most part, if there's an issue or a problem, they have another outlet to speak to that can then go into the school system and say, "hey we have a problem here." But not even having a problem, also celebrating the triumphs that occur as well.

And--and so I think that what we need to do a better job of is creating relationships with administrators who can see that there's a benefit by bringing in folks in a faith-based community to be a part, whether it's just having a breakfast or even if it's just you know being a part of graduation. I mean several years I have been keynote speaker at--at graduations, high school graduations, eighth grade graduations.

My hope is that even with this podcast, even with you inquiring and asking these questions, it can start to bring a little bit more light to the fact that, you know, we need this partnership. We need these relationships. We need to do new things to understand what's happening as it relates to folks in the faith-based and folks who are in, you know, the—the school-based communities as well.

Ken: Awesome. So, uh, what unique insights can faith-based organizations and their leaders and members offer schools and educators about, again, the whole child, what's happening outside of the four walls of the school.

David: Very good question. Well, I think, first of all, we always want to look at what we're doing as building bridges. And when we're looking at the student, um, we can recognize that there's more to life than just math and English and science and social studies. It really takes, you know, incorporating what you're learning and putting it into action.

And when we're looking at, you know, students and creating a well-rounded individual, we want folks who not only can understand the Pythagorean theorem but can understand what it means to care for your brother or your sister or someone who doesn't look like you or someone who doesn't worship like you or doesn't have the same faith background as you.

I think the more that we--we bring faith-based individuals into the conversation, it can lead to a better well-rounded student which is what we're trying to, I think, graduate into this--this great world of ours. Students who can say, you know, when I graduated, I knew that there was a presence, not only from my educators, but from folks in my community who I saw spiritual leaders, um, faith-based community leaders as well.

Ken: In those-- those faith-based conversations, how can schools and educators think through bringing folks in in ways that are meaningful, and in ways that are open to all, and that--that don't isolate any any one specific person based off of their faith background.

David: Very good. I think we just saw it here recently, um, the Commissioner just held a faith-based gathering and he brought folks together that were in different silos and in different corners. He put them all in the same room.

I think when you make a clarion call and say. "we're reaching out to those who are in our community who do the work of--of inspiring and spiritually motivating our--our community, whether it be from a Christian background, a Jewish background, or a Muslim background, a Hindu background, and an atheist background. I mean we have to respect all sorts of--of backgrounds as it relates to faith and putting folks in the room.

And for a long time, I don't think that there has been an environment where we've been able to get folks in the room to explain what our system looks like here in the state of New Jersey with education. I think bringing that to the forefront of saying, "it doesn't matter where you are. We can meet you where we are to bring things together."

So identifying and putting folks together that's first and foremost.

Second of all, I think it's important to, you know, as we spoke about, continue to build a relationship. If we see out of Trenton, um, that there is a value for folks who are in churches and in syna--synagogues and masjids, that there is a concern for the work that they're doing to partner with the mission and the goal of what we see out of the Department of Education and out of our school districts. I think then that creates a better buy-in.

And then after you've kind of, you know, set it out, you called folks out, you create an agenda.

When I headed up "My Brother's Keeper" for the City of Newark President

Obama's initiative, the first thing that I did is I brought stakeholders together. We valued those stakeholders, Ken, we looked at them as individuals who held a major reputation in the work they were doing, and then we created a common goal and plan. What I like about what the Commissioner has done is he's kind of leveled the playing field in saying, "let me inform you," right?

And so he walked us through, from what I observed from--from the gathering recently that we had, he walked us through who the key players were, who we should identify with, who we could kind of talk to.

And you could see in the room, faith-based, you know, community leaders, just washed over with, you know, inspiration and understanding that someone is taking the time to help us understand, who are those players, who are those stakeholders?

And then across the out, looking and saying, "we identify you all as folks that we care about as faith-based leaders," so now, we have what I would call this bridge that is being built as it relates to a common goal, a common understanding, and folks being on the same page to get the job done, which is what ultimately ensuring that our students in the state of New Jersey have every access that is needed for them to succeed in the long run of students.

Ken: So, faith-based sites are often community hubs.

David: [murmurs in agreement]

Ken: and they're places with lots of energy, lots of things going on.

David: Yeah.

Ken: How can educators reach out to faith-based sites to better engage their students, parents, and their community as a whole, at those sites, or--or in collaboration with those sites?

David: Very good. I would say, um, come on in. Come visit on a--on a Sunday morning, you can come, or even a Saturday morning, depending upon your faith. You can enter into a worship experience, just to be a part of what's happening.

When I go to my schools, throughout the districts that I serve, when I get there, I'm stopped. I have to sign in. I have to show my ID. There's a process that I gotta, which is great, right, because it keeps our kids safe. But it's a different environment.

When you're coming into the faith-based environment, the doors should be open, and you should be able to come in and experience, not only an inspirational, you know, opportunity--a moment, but also start to get into the aesthetic of the community.

And that's what we want. We want to let folks know, first of all, come in and just engage in a worship experience and see what we're doing. See how we're--we're moving Christian education along. See how we're moving education, period. And the importance of it, along.

And I--and I--and I and I lean back on what the Commissioner did this past, uh, you know, summer. This past summer, the Commissioner came, he was our keynote speaker at our education graduation, um, program in our church at Metropolitan. His speech was in--inciting, exciting, um, motivational.

But what it did was it really allowed for the individuals in our congregation to get exposed to him on,  I would say a level that otherwise they wouldn't on a weekly basis.

I mean we literally saw him there. He took time to speak with the parishioners, you know, shake hands. Let folks know who he was, what his agenda was. That brought him to another level.

I mean, because for us, oftentimes we only see these leaders on television or in the news, or on Twitter. On Instagram, Facebook. But there isn't that real personable touch.

I think the more that the—the playing field is kind of leveled with saying, "come in. Just come say hello come get to know, you know, who the leadership is," and from there we can sit down. We can work together. We can see, "what are some of the issues that you guys are dealing with?" and maybe we can address them on our end.

I mean, I have a parent in my congregation who recently came to me. She shared with me some challenges her child is having. I became a voice for her, to kind of listen, hear what the issue was and now we're putting together a game plan to take it into the district because we can approach administrators. And letting them know what the issue is and what what it looks like. Folks generally feel they don't have the confidence to speak about.

Ken: We have a lot of teachers who listen to this podcast,

David: Awesome.

Ken: And I also want to think about them, you know. You've talked a lot about kind of those connections between leaders in churches and in mosques and synagogues, and all of the other different faith-based communities we have in New Jersey.

David: Yeah.

Ken: How can an individual teacher, maybe that relationship isn't there at that administration level or the district central office level, but maybe there's an individual teacher or a principal who says, "you know we have this one or--or two or many faith-based organizations in our, uh,  in the area of our school. And, you know, we know some of our students are going there, how can they reach out and say, "hey we see this need, this specific thing happening, and we'd really like to partner around it to try," and again, maybe it's a specific student, a specific circumstance, to really--to really improve that?

David: I have a case study for you in regards to this question. In 2016, the Director of Curriculum and Instruction at the time in Hillside, uh, New Jersey, Hillside School District, invited me to be the keynote speaker for their teachers' professional development, for the teachers' convocation.

I went to Hillside and I delivered an exciting speech, uh. And on that day, the principal of the school, I'll never forget it. Principal Christine Sidwall came to me and said, "you know, Reverend Jefferson, that was an amazing message you delivered."

And this is what she said to me on that day. She said, "we need you here in our school. There's a group of young people that could really use your leadership and your mentorship. What can we do to make it happen?"

And from 2016 to today, I am in the school district working with Principal Sidwall, working with the district, working with Hillside High School.

But she really said, "there's a need for you here. Let's sit down." We sat down. Principal Sidwall, Dr. Christy Oliver-Hawley and I. We put together a plan. And ultimately, out of that plan we were able to create a partnership, which created what I would call a vested interest that said, you know, "we have a principal who identifies a skill set that we see out of someone in our faith-based based community,” but then she bridges that with curriculum and instruction. She lays out a game plan. We all work it together.

This is what I would call a case study of what can happen if we just take the time to look at, you know, the asset of who's in our community. You know, different perspectives, different ways.

First of all, from our perspective, we encourage parents to attend their—the board meetings. Attend and be a part of parents and teachers association to get engaged and involved.

So there's a message that's--that's being declared out, you know, we want involvement.

Now, as it relates to the school, the school has to do what I saw principal Sidwall do on that day.

Engagement can come [in] many different ways. If you are not spiritual I would say, I don't like to say religious, right? But if you're--if you're not spiritual, if you're not connected to a faith-based group, what you can do is ask around. You know, ask your colleagues, "where do you go to church? What are some of your beliefs as far as school and education? Who do you see as someone that is in the faith-based community but you respect them on a major level as it relates to even education?"

Because many of our faith-based folks, they've gone to school and studied. And they are--are very aware of educational processes and what-- and what it takes to to be someone who's educated and doing the work. So you call out, and you look out, and you ask out, and you inquire, "who is it that you see, not so much on the news making a big fuss." 

You want to identify someone that you see cares for young people. You want to identify someone that you see cares for our families in the community. You want to identify someone who, as my father says, is more of a partner than a protester.

And, when you can kind of start to hit those marks and ask out, you know, bring out some feeders, and just have a sit-down ,whether it's a tea, whether it's a coffee.

And--and take that time, whether it's after church on a Sunday to say, you know, "I want to speak with you, uh, minister or Reverend or pastor or rabbi or--or a masjid. I want to speak to you about what we can do, as it relates to the role that you play, and what we're seeing a gap of or a lack of, or--or just wanting you to get involved too."

Because this is a two-way street. You know, oftentimes folks don't understand, ministers want to be involved just as much as--as what we're seeing in our educational system.

Some, but—but oftentimes we don't get an invitation. Oftentimes we don't get a request or, you know, we just want to invite you out to the graduation. I mean, yes, I speak at graduations and I love it, but if not, there's not an invitation on my desk in my church in the morning saying "Reverend DJ, here's our graduation. We just want to invite you."

There has to be a two-way street of respect. We can't just wait until there's a problem to engage our faith-based community, and that's what we've seen. We've seen a behavior history where, and I see that being broken now with the Commissioner where he's saying, "No, I'm putting out invitations. I want faith-based folks to know that I'm engaged in the community."

We see that with Commissioner Repollet, um, underneath our-- our Governor and underneath this Commissioner, I see, um, what I would say is a position and a purposeful intent to make sure faith-based folks are connected to the cause, the mission of what is moving forward.

As a result, I think that's going to create a more holistic child. See what happens. Have a faith-based day where you just bring out folks in the community.

There doesn't have to be a--a particular agenda as it relates to sharing perspective more than it can just to, "let's come together. Let's fellowship and let's see what we can do together."

That's the thing.

[end of interview]

Conclusion

Ken: All of us at the Department are excited to investigate how we can support the Commissioner's vision to build bridges with faith-based organizations in your communities.

Please join us as a statewide Professional Learning Network on February 18th, 2020 at 8:30 p.m. We're going to be chatting on the #NJEdPartners Twitter chat about how to reach out and partner with community organizations like faith-based communities.

We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third Tuesday Twitter

You can subscribe to the podcast channel for DOE Digest through your iPhone, in the Apple podcast app, or wherever else you listen to podcasts so that you can get new episodes when they are released.

Also, please leave us a review through the Apple podcast app on your iPhone. It is the best way to help new listeners find us.

Neither the New Jersey Department of Education, nor its officers, employees or agents, specifically endorse, recommend, or favor views expressed by those interviewed. Discussion of resources are not endorsements.

Thanks so much for listening.

[closing music]

Conclusion

Ken: All of us at the Department are excited to investigate how we can support the Commissioner's vision to build bridges with faith-based organizations in your communities.

Please join us as a statewide Professional Learning Network on February 18th, 2020 at 8:30 p.m. We're going to be chatting on the #NJEdPartners Twitter chat about how to reach out and partner with community organizations like faith-based communities.

We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third Tuesday Twitter

You can subscribe to the podcast channel for DOE Digest through your iPhone, in the Apple podcast app, or wherever else you listen to podcasts so that you can get new episodes when they are released.

Also, please leave us a review through the Apple podcast app on your iPhone. It is the best way to help new listeners find us.

Neither the New Jersey Department of Education, nor its officers, employees or agents, specifically endorse, recommend, or favor views expressed by those interviewed. Discussion of resources are not endorsements.

Thanks so much for listening.

[closing music]


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