Toms River Regional Schools is the largest suburban district in New Jersey, with 18 schools and a large preK program, over 2,400 staff, and almost 16,000 students spread over a 56 square mile geographic area. It was the region hardest hit by Superstorm Sandy, the impact of which continues, both financially and spiritually. In an area already struggling to find its way, recovery has been slow. Where some see obstacles, Toms River sees opportunity--be it in our community, or in our schools in the areas of curriculum, professional development, and creative classrooms. New learning standards, the maker movement, and innovateNJ came along at just the right time to spur us on.
We took baby steps in 2014 when teachers volunteered to be part of the Hour of Code, Computer Science Week, and NJ Makers Day. The growing interest in the kinds of activities we brainstormed together led to a giant leap of faith we dubbed the “Jersey Shore Makerfest.” The all day event in October 2015 was designed to be entirely experiential, content independent, for all ages and interests… and FREE. Thanks to sponsors, partners, and volunteers who believed in us-- including school districts, colleges, community organizations, museums, tech companies, local artists, the NJDOE’s Office of Educational Technology, and the NJ School Boards Association-- we assembled over 100 makers of all kinds. More than 4000 folks showed up, and loved it. We repeated the event the next October, bigger and better. (For details, go to jerseyshoremakerfest.org .)
Makerfest proved the value of a maker mindset in building communities, solving problems, and engaging learners of all ages. We had a story to tell. The partnerships grew. Grant applications started coming back as winners (to the tune of over half a million dollars just last year). Sponsors helped augment district funds and talent to build makerspaces in every building, including a $75,000 “Innovation Station” at Intermediate East School supported by Office Depot and $182,000 from the Grunin Foundation. The Board had already invested heavily in technology and curriculum. These funds allowed us to explore, innovate, and prove the value of our ideas.
Now, on any given day, you can find a NAVAIR Naval Air Systems Command engineer working with a robotics team, a Google Hangout with schools around the country, and teachers training with artists from Rutgers University. The district won a $100,000 Title I basic skills grant and used it to create a summer Makercamp for 75 middle schoolers; guests found it to be indistinguishable from a gift and talented program. Teachers made full day kindergarten a reality by taking charge of professional learning, creating a full day centers workshop symposium. High school staff and administrators have been inspired to initiate high rigor Career Academies at each of our high schools in the areas of Arts, Business, and STEAM.
Our most inspirational education collaborators, which arose out of innovateNJ, has been the staff and students of the A Harry Moore school in Jersey City. We came to view each other as more than one shot project collaborators, but as lifelong partners. We travel to share PD opportunities, to celebrate, and co-plan, and we communicate using web technology constantly.
Our story should inform others that adversity need not define you, that finances shouldn’t stop you from dreaming, and that, more than any curriculum, structure, or space, relationships are the best things we can build to create happy and meaningful experiences for our children.