Wednesday, April 25, 2018-- After nearly two years of phone conferences, partner meetings, and multiple revisions, Toms River Regional Schools announces the award of a major grant from the Office of Naval Research (ONR). The grant provides more than $763,000 over three years. Funds will be used to rapidly advance the district’s plans to put computer programming applications at the core of many of its programs, beginning at the high school level.
Dubbed TR:TechReady, the project reflects the Board of Education’s vision to make Toms River Regional schools beacons of innovation and crucibles of learning. The project will enable students to become better prepared for challenging careers and higher education opportunities, paving the way to productive and satisfying futures. Tom River is also an InnovateNJ district and was in the first cohort chosen last year by the NJ Department of Education, NJ School Boards Association, and NJIT for the new Future Ready Schools initiative, further indicators of its progressive programs and teaching staff.
According to ONR’s Education & Workforce/Naval STEM Director Dr. Michael Simpson, “It is our mission to inspire, acquire, and constantly develop the current and next civilian and uniform workforce with needed naval STEM capabilities. I am pleased that the TR:TechReady project incorporates so many vital components to accomplish this mission.”
TechReady aligns with the Navy’s mission of security and preparedness through the trifecta of scientific research, development, and evaluation. According to Superintendent David Healy, “The Toms River area has one of the largest populations of veterans in the state, we are minutes away from the MDL joint base, and many of our staff and parents have served in the military, so it is especially gratifying to have such a high profile grant connecting us with the armed forces.”
The 36-page application was largely written by Assistant Superintendent Dr. Marc Natanagara, with key support from Supervisor of Educational Technology Tiffany Lucey and Grant Writer Mike Kenny. The plan is being implemented by a district team with diverse educational and grant experience that includes Secondary Curriculum Director Norma DeNoia; High School Science Supervisor Charles Evers; Intermediate Math Supervisor Heather Pentifallo; and teachers Suzanne Signorelli, Leslie Withstandley, Phillip Beachy, and Christine Girtain. Students will also have input on the developing plan.
Signorelli will serve as lead contact and project manager. “Our high schools currently offer limited courses in programming languages but our students have been showing increasing interest,” she said. “This program will greatly improve their engineering, physics, and coding skills by leaps and bounds, and equip our teachers with training that will benefit students far beyond the grant period.”
Over the last four years, the district has won nearly $1.5 million in other grants. Mr. Kenny, who joined the team last year with initial funding from the Jay and Linda Grunin Foundation, has had an increasingly important role in identifying grants aligning with the district’s mission, organizing staff to write and submit applications, and being the key contact point for grant providers.
Though this is the largest single curricular grant the district has received, several others have had a major impact. Two years ago the Grunin Foundation supported projects in every one of the district’s schools to the tune of $185,000. Last year, the Hirair and Anna Hovnanian Foundation awarded $255k in support of Toms River Regional Schools’ new career academies. The district has also won funding from the NJDOE, NEA, DEP, OceanFirst, and Sustainable Jersey in the past four years, all of which have helped stem losses from reduced state aide and an ongoing recovery from the financial impact of Superstorm Sandy.
Since 2013, during the Obama administration, a national “Computer Science for All” mission has inspired districts to add more computer programming opportunities through initiatives like code.org and Computer Science Education Week each December. The ONR grant will help the district develop advanced programs, both curricular and extracurricular, on advanced coding and its applications, like robotics, testing, mixed reality, cyber security, and advanced manufacturing. It will also be used to train staff and upgrade spaces, materials, and tools to support coding courses and activities.
"This program will greatly improve [students'] engineering, physics, and coding skills by leaps and bounds, and equip our teachers with training that will benefit students far beyond the grant period." - Suzanne Signorelli
In addition to the Toms River Regional team, ten community partners committed to support the original grant application. Chief among them was the United States Navy Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), based in Lakehurst and already a partner with the schools on several other fronts. NAVAIR’s laboratories, specializing in radiometry, materials testing, reverse engineering, control systems, and artificial intelligence, will be critical proving grounds for the skills students develop through TechReady.
“NAVAIR is happy that Toms River Regional was awarded this highly competitive STEM grant and very excited to be a part of it,” said Gaetan Mangano, Education Outreach Site Lead for Naval Air Systems Command at Lakehurst. “We look forward to helping create authentic student interactions and inspiring them to consider careers in research, development, and technology.”
Other partners include RWJBarnabas Health, Ocean County College, Rutgers University, Kean University, Yashi AdTech, Toms River Town Council and legislative representatives, the Grunin Foundation, Big Brothers, Big Sisters, Congressman Tom MacArthur, and the Boy Scouts of America. Their contributions include staff workshops, student internships, mentors, and events. Activities for staff and students are expected to begin this summer both at OCC’s campus in Toms River, at NAVAIR, and through Rutgers University.
Fundamental to every grant for which the district applies is student impact and long term sustainability. Says Natanagara, “This directly aligns with Board curriculum and technology goals. It will push us at least five to ten years ahead of where we would have been in the area of coding and its applications, which are now part of almost every aspect of our lives. It is also part of our plan to share our resources with other districts as we progress.”
TechReady builds on existing initiatives in integrated hands-on approaches, authentic inquiry, and problem-based learning, pushing beyond STEM and STEAM. The program will augment high tech activities at the heart of the district’s new career academies in each of its three high schools, with applications across the curriculum in arts, business, medicine, engineering, and environmental studies.
“As we become more exposed to a rapidly changing professional landscape, it’s clear that capacity in coding will unleash a wave of future opportunities for our children,” said district parent Tara Cunningham, who helped connect the district with ONR. “This program sets up Toms River Schools to become a leader in the field, which affords our children a big advantage when it comes time for them to enter the workforce.”
While the funds are specifically directed toward high schools, the district sees career readiness and coding initiatives as far more than a secondary level challenge. It has been continually revising its PreK-12 vision as new resources become available. Supervisor Lucey has been a leader in bringing national technology initiatives into classrooms. “We are embedding coding and algorithmic thinking into instruction at every level,” said Lucey. “This, and creating an environment where students can try, fail, and develop persistence, will prepare them well for next-generation careers.”
Integrated approaches and the introduction of coding are taking root in elementary classrooms, which will put pressure on programs at the district’s intermediate and high schools to be prepared for students with a much better knowledge and skills base in coming years. Students as young as pre-school have demonstrated an ability to understand computational thinking and coding logic, and developmentally appropriate activities are being designed at every level.
Student activities and staff training will begin as early as this summer. Dawna Schultz, Director of In-district Initiatives at the Center for Mathematics, Science, and Computer Education at Rutgers University, began brainstorming programs with her team before the grant award was even confirmed. “Based on our past partnerships, we are excited to work with Dr. Natanagara and his team because we know they will make the program successful and take it where few others would,” Schultz said.
Any organization interested in joining this community initiative is invited to contact the district to support its students and TechReady’s goals.More information will become available on the program’s website at http://www.trschools.com/curriculum/techready.
For more information, contact Mike Kenny at email@example.com or (732) 505-5500 x500053.