Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, 50CAN will be working to connect with some of our country’s leading thinkers, educators and policymakers as they share their best thinking on the needed adaptations for our education system, districts, schools and classrooms that will best serve students during this challenging and chaotic time.
Derrell Bradford, 50CAN’s executive vice president, is joined by Patricia Morgan, executive director of JerseyCAN. Morgan was recently appointed to both the New Jersey Senate’s Education Recovery Task Force and the Department of Education’s Steering Committee on Reopening Schools, where her focus will be on conveying the needs and interests of students and families to decision makers. She discusses that work, along with the factors on the ground that informed her new campaign goals.
Derrell Bradford: Hey, everybody. If you’ve been watching our video series, you know I’m not Marc Porter Magee. I’m Derrell Bradford. I’m the executive vice president of 50CAN. And today I’m delighted to have a chance to talk to our executive director in New Jersey for our campaign there, JerseyCAN, Patricia Morgan. Hey, Patricia. How are you?
Patricia Morgan: I’m very well under these circumstance, Derrell. Thanks so much for having me today.
I obviously know you and know a lot about your work. Why don’t you tell our viewers a little bit about yourself and how you came to have the job?
Well, being the executive director of JerseyCAN really is my dream job. My career in the education space started more than 15 years ago as a first grade special education teacher in New York. And I really saw firsthand a lot of the challenges that our teachers and families face, especially in low-income school districts. And I found myself advocating for my special needs students, what they needed in their IEPs, more than I actually was focusing on my practice as a teacher.
And so that was such a profound experience that I stepped back and thought, “How can become a better advocate for children?” So I decided to go to law school. Worked in the legal industry for a little while, and then had the opportunity to go work for our governor in New Jersey, working on education issues, and became the chief legal officer at the department of education. So when I had the opportunity to join JerseyCAN as the executive director, it was absolutely the best opportunity for me to continue to advocate for students and educational equity in New Jersey.
And tell us about JerseyCAN. Tell us about your work, then. What have you taken on since you took the job?
I’ve been at JerseyCAN the last two years. JerseyCAN’s been in existence for seven years, since 2013. And our mission has really been to focus on ensuring that decision makers have the best research and information about educational excellence and equity at their fingertips to be able to make decisions that are best for students and families in New Jersey.
We’ve worked on expanding high-quality seats for students. We’ve worked on financial issues like school budgets. We also most recently have taken on the issue of making sure that we’re increasing the quantity and quality of teachers in New Jersey and focusing on the educator workforce. We actually just launched a fellowship about two weeks ago to help bring in teachers into our work and to empower them to become advocates throughout New Jersey as well.
I don’t know if you’ve heard, or maybe you don’t read the news, but there’s a pandemic that’s going on out there and it’s obvious affected New Jersey a great deal. I love New Jersey too. The region is challenged right now. Tell us about how Covid-19 has affected your work.
I would say immediately our work was impacted by Covid-19. Really, overnight, as the nation started shutting down, New Jersey started shutting down. And we instantly sprung into action, thinking about short term, what we needed to do to be able to close schools safely, but also to ensure equity. So things like, would students who received free and reduced lunch be able to receive meals at their schools? Did they have computers for remote learning and connectivity? And very quickly, our work shifted dramatically because 1.4 million school children were suddenly at home with their families. And we quickly moved into action to make sure that they have the resources they needed to continue learning.
Then once the immediate shutdown happened, we started focusing on more long term, like what would a continued shutdown mean for students and families, what would it mean for the educator pipeline, what would it mean for charter schools who have registration needs, and started focusing on what flexibilities really needed to be place for the education system in New Jersey to continue to operate.
Now, as we know, schools in New Jersey will be closed for the rest of the school year, we’re really actively looking at what reopening looks like. But not just the operational aspects of what reopening looks like. What do we need to be doing for our students to address learning loss? What do we need to be doing to look at things like our curriculum and prioritizing the standards and the things that students need to learn next year? And how do we do all that with the backdrop of the real potential that schools may have to close down again as well as an impending budget crisis in New Jersey?
So there is no shortage of work. And our team has not missed a beat being as active as possible on the phone weekly with the department of education, state board of education members, the legislature, and the governor’s office, sharing our thoughts and advocating for students and equity across the state.
I know equity and excellence is the core tenets of your campaign, but you did change your goals to match up with this new reality. Do you want to give our viewers a sense of what you think you’ve got to do short term and what you might have on the long term now?
Yeah, absolutely. Well, following that equity thread, we wanted to first and foremost make sure that there is equity in any federal stimulus dollars that are coming to New Jersey in being distributed. And ensuring that there’s equity in our state budget. So any funds that are coming into the state or being distributed, we wanted to make sure that traditional public school, our public charter schools, as well as our public renaissance schools all had access to those dollars.
We’re happy to say that the CARES Act funding that came in from the federal government to New Jersey, about $310 million, is being distributed based on Title I status to all schools in New Jersey that quality for Title I funds. Now, we’ve initially had at least small success. New Jersey is looking at potentially a $10 billion budget shortfall over the next two years. And so we’re actively advocating for stimulus funding and making sure that we are trying to fill any gaps that might be created by this budget shortfall, so that students can continue learning next year. So that was really our first goal.
Our second goal has been focused on trying to think about what the curriculum needs to look like next year and really assessing learning loss and thinking about how we accelerate learning next year. It’s good to know that there is an achievement gap, so that we can advocated for equity. But now we need to think about how we accelerate through that so that students remain on course. And that all students, whether they’re in an urban school district, a suburban district, or a rural district and regardless of what type of school they’re in, that they’re still learning next year.
And then finally, we’ve been really focused on the educator workforce and thinking about how COVID-19 is affecting the pipeline of teachers coming into our schools every year. New Jersey has seen a steady decline in the number of teachers coming into our classrooms over the last four years. And so we really rely on new teachers either coming out of educator prep programs or through the alternate route to connect with students each year in the classroom. And knowing that we might have to go and revert back to remote learning next year, we feel it’s absolutely imperative that every classroom have a teacher in the fall.
We don’t want to go into the fall with numerous vacancies, because those children could be left floundering throughout the school year. So we’re trying to think about what flexibilities do we need to put in place so that those individuals who want to come into our schools and really change the lives for students, especially during this difficult time, have the flexibility to come in, do their requirements over a period of time, and become certified teachers throughout this experience.
I do think a lot of people are missing the opportunity to revisit teacher licensure as a way to fill up the pipeline, as you talked about. So I know that you’re participating on two task forces to help sauce these issues out. One with the Senate Education chair and one just broadly to reopen the state. Why don’t you tell our folks about what that work is like and really what your expectation are for your engagement on both of these efforts?
JerseyCAN was thrilled to be invited to participate in both the Senate Education Recovery Task Force which has been meeting for about the last three weeks with a number of stakeholders across the state. And then just this past week, we were invited by the department of education to work on their recovery and reopening plan.
I think what is unique about JerseyCAN’s role is that unlike other education groups who have members that they’re advocating for, we are solely focused on students and families. We are laser focused on making sure that we are advocating for them and an excellent education. And so because we are focused on New Jersey but also have this national connection through 50CAN, we are really a gateway for bringing a number of incredible thought partners and national thought partners to the conversation in New Jersey and helping those two task forces utilize that information to think about, okay, what is the best plan for reopening and recovery in New Jersey?
I think being that we’re seven years into JerseyCAN, I think it’s a real testament to the relationships we’ve really built over time. Not just during my tenure, but during my predecessor’s tenure at JerseyCAN. They know that we will bring thoughtful conversation to the table. And they want us there to think about how we solve these problems during this incredibly difficult time.
Yeah, I served on the Educator Effectiveness Task Force in a prior administration. It really is a fantastic civic and personal opportunity to improve education for kids in the state that you call home.
Absolutely. And what’s great is we’re talking to parents, we’re talking to teachers, we’re talking to school leaders every week. And so a real part of advocacy is connecting those dots, right? And so we have the pleasure and the honor and responsibility as advocates, in our roles on these task force, to take the information we’re learning, probe it to the decision makers, tell them what we’re hearing is happening on the ground, and trying to be thoughtful about coming up with solutions quickly and in real time. So it really is about connecting all the information to make sure you’re solving the problems as quickly as possible, but that on-the-ground input is just so crucial.
So I know you’re busy. Thanks for being with us. You got any last words you want to say to anybody who’s watching?
I just want to acknowledge our educators here in New Jersey. They’ve been going above and beyond. In the early days of the COVID shutdown, we did a number of blog series focused on how they’ve gone above and beyond. So I really want to commend them. And I really want to acknowledge that this is a real opportunity for engagement and leadership and innovation.
We have some big problems on our hands. Not just the operational aspects of opening schools, but also dealing with some significant budget shortfalls. And so we all have to think really hard about how we innovate during this time to make sure that we continue serving our students. Because first and foremost, that’s why this education system is in place to educate our students.
Patricia, thank you.