CAPE MAY — Cape May is known for its Victorian architecture, white sandy beaches and iconic lighthouse. And now it will be known for educational success, as the local school district was named a Lighthouse District by the New Jersey Department of Education.
Cape May City Elementary School was one of seven districts in the state to receive the inaugural honor in the fall. The designation recognizes the school's academic achievements, especially on the statewide standardized test, with a diverse student body.
Local educators said the positive test results are derived from good practices in and out of the classroom — practices they will share with others throughout the state as part of the Lighthouse District program.
“For the students at Cape May City Elementary, it means a lot. They’re very proud of the honor,” said Anne Borger, director of elementary education in the district. “They understand it has to do with them all doing well.”
The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, is administered to almost all students in the state from third through eighth grade, as well as in high schools. When the New Jersey Department of Education released the results in September of the third round of PARCC testing, it also released a three-year proficiency comparison for every grade level in every district. Cape May City Elementary students showed increases in overall proficiency in every year for both math and English, except for the sixth grade.
Cape Elementary is one of the smaller districts in the state, with just over 200 students in preschool through sixth grade, many of whom come from the local Coast Guard community. Classes are small, and the teachers get to know parents and students personally.
Superintendent Victoria Zelenak said that’s a good thing.
“The teachers know their interests, they know their family backgrounds and they can address their individual needs,” Zelenak said.
Recently the district hosted representatives from the state Department of Education to tour the school and speak with students. The students greeted the state officials with a take on the song “This Little Light of Mine” while holding battery-powered candles. During the visit, the representatives also heard from students on how they are developing a love of learning because they are challenged and supported.
“It’s not just these teachers that make this a great school, but everyone helps along the way,” second-grade student James Krautler said of his past and present teachers. “Everyone made learning fun, exciting and, well, different.”
Krautler said he hasn’t taken the PARCC yet but isn’t too nervous because his teachers help him prepare with practice tests.
Zelenak said student engagement is important to the district, which is why all of the teachers have trained in a technique called “Total Participation Strategies.” Zelenak said the technique provides 32 suggestions on how to engage students in their learning.
“Every child is engaged at every moment,” she said, adding it is also tied to the teacher-evaluation score.
Borger said one technique is to emphasize movement for the students during a lesson or activity and during the transition between activities.
The two school leaders said other programs such as “Brain Train” (where students are given individualized learning time) and “Mind Up” (meditation over punishment) help motivate the students to learn.
Borger said safety is big, too.
“When they feel safe, they are able to learn,” she said.
In addition to teaching techniques, the district uses data analysis of its PARCC scores to drive instruction. They also offer a free afterschool PARCC preparation class for students from January through March.
“Victoria’s leadership is one of empowering teachers,” Borger said.
The Department of Education agrees. Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington applauded the district’s use of benchmark assessments to develop specific support plans for students. She said she was also impressed by the collaborative development of professional learning for educators.
“Cape May City has established student-centered classrooms and uses data to create support structures that allow differentiated and individualized instruction and teacher collaboration,” Harrington said. “Superintendent Victoria Zelenak and her staff have a focus on providing all students with an inclusive, warm and welcoming environment that helps develop the ‘whole’ child.”