You don't have to travel to Florida to find the next generation of biologists studying sharks.
As a matter of fact, you don't even have to travel beyond Weehawken's Theodore Roosevelt School. At the end of last year, the school’s fifth and sixth graders graders learned how to use a GPS “shark tracker” to study marine life from New Jersey to Florida, with the help of some scientists. The kids were given Chromebook laptops, like the other third through 12th graders, to track specific sharks.
Last month, relatively new Superintendent of Schools Dr. Robert Zywicki enthusiastically chatted about these and other programs he’s been proud to see during his first year as superintendent of schools.
“What fifth grader doesn't love sharks?” -Dr. Robert Zywicki
“What fifth grader doesn't love sharks?” he said, as he checked shark locations on the computer. “Our kids are learning about anatomy, physiology, shark biology, shark reproductive habits, all these things. It's a way to bring them the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) curriculum in a way that makes them really excited.”
The sharks even have their own Twitter handles (Mary Lee The Shark, for instance.)
Zywicki has a giddy, childlike sort of energy when he discusses the district's programs. Seldom when he goes in-depth about blended learning or coding computers does he fail to smile.
Judging from the results, he’s been successful.
The International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE), an educational management company that works to inspire and challenge today's educators, recently named Weehawken's school district one of its "Innovative Districts" for 2017, according to a press release. (See sidebar.)
And Niche, a national school ranking and review website, ranked the district one of its Top 100 Districts in New Jersey for 2017, with an overall A- ranking.
The township's schools also ranked 13 out of 242 of Niche's 2017 Safest School Districts in New Jersey and 21 out of 239 for Most Diverse School Districts in New Jersey.
In other award news, the high school marching band also placed first in their class in the Tournament of Bands for the NY Metro/North Jersey region last year.
Zywicki is proud of other accomplishments by the students, too. Five Weehawken High School seniors were named AP Scholars by the College Board’s AP Program in September. That distinction goes to students who score a 3 or more on at least three AP exams.
Two additional seniors not only achieved the AP Scholar distinction, but did it with an honors distinction. The honors designation goes to students who score at least a 3 on at least four AP exams, with a 3.5 average on each exam.
“Things have gone extremely well,” Zywicki said. “I love working in Weehawken. I'm very blessed to have a fantastic board president, a board that is super supportive and understands education in 2017. My board really gets that we need to be innovative, because the world around us is changing very quickly and dynamically. We have to constantly be working to improve. Mayor [Richard] Turner, the town council, they've been so supportive, and I feel really good about what we have done and the trajectory that we're on.”
That trajectory shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
A look at the district's YouTube videos gives a taste of the developments that have taken root since Zywicki's arrival.
One clip features a second grader, narrating and playing the STMATH visual math learning game, exclusively at the Daniel Webster School, on her Chromebook. The second grader helps a penguin, named JiJi, navigate up building blocks by correctly answering grade-level, standards-based math questions.
Another video shows a seventh grader on the Weehawken High School Robotics Team showing off a robot.
The district is also expanding on its extensive AP Capstone program that started in September. That program adds a research component to complement regular AP classes in the district, classes that sometimes count for credits in college. The district has 31 AP classes. The expansion is called Career Academies.
“The career academies are where kids complete an elective sequence of courses in a particular field, and then they can do an internship or a Capstone project,” Zywicki explained. “Students can do the Biomedical Academy, and then they do an internship at Palisades Medical Center. They do the Engineering Academy, and then do an internship with one of the developers down on the waterfront.”
Human rights course to be offered
But the district isn't just interested in getting students up to par academically. It also wants to hone their social justice muscles. Next year, Weehawken High School will offer a course called “Human Rights.” It will teach teenagers to look at where people's rights are in danger worldwide and how to defend them. The class idea came from a trip Zywicki and students learning about the Holocaust took years ago to actual Holocaust sites in Poland and the Czech Republic.
“Holocaust education is one of the best forms of bully prevention,” Zywicki said. “It all starts with bullying and marginalizing others.”
There have been challenges too. Zywicki had to help the educators assess and work around data they had regarding student perfomance. Now, the educators meet with one another regularly in grade-level teams called Professional Learning Communities.
“Those teams, they are mapping our curriculum,” Zywicki explained. “They look at what standards do we have to meet, and what are we going to teach the students, and then [look] to see if we're teaching the standards.”
There is now a page where parents can see which topics, like addition facts for first graders, are being taught to their children.
“It's a way to demonstrate what our product is to the parents and families,” said Zywicki. “We started this in March, and I'm very happy to say we met this goal, which was one of our strategic goals.”
Another goal Zywicki proudly noted was instigating what he calls a “culture of risk” among both teachers and pupils alike.
“Our teachers are now comfortable with trying new blended learning tools,” said Zywicki, who started his career in Bayonne. “I think it's something that we've all united around—this vision that we're going to be innovators.”
“Everyone's really happy about what's going on,” said Weehawken School Board President Richard Barsa, about Zywicki's performance. “We're moving in the right direction. He's accomplished quite a bit, and he's moving so fast that sometimes I can't keep up with him.”
Hannington Dia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Weehawken chosen as model school district
The International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE), and educational management company which works to inspire and challenge today's educators, recently named Weehawken's school district one of its "Innovative Districts" for 2017, according to a press release.
As a result, the district will showcase its best practices, along with 12 other districts, this June at the 25th Annual Model Schools Conference in Nashville. That conference "is the nation’s premier event to showcase the most rapidly improving K-12 schools and districts," the release said.
Weehawken Superintendent of Schools Dr. Zywicki said, “This is an honor for the entire faculty, administration, and Board of Trustees. It is an indicator of the upward trajectory of the district and our dedication to our students’ success.”
He added, “We are very excited to share our story at Model Schools. Along the way we will connect with educators from across the country who can expose us to progressive ideas and resources so we can keep innovating.”