New Jersey STEM Teachers Can Moonlight at Private Schools

New Jersey education officials and individual school districts are promoting a new grant program that will pay public school teachers to moonlight by teaching STEM classes in private schools.

by Steve Strunsky, NJ Advance Media Group / February 24, 2020
A new state grant program will essentially pay STEM teachers overtime to moonlight in private schools, including religous schools. Here, students from Catholic schools around the state showed lawmakers in Trenton STEM projects during a visit to the Statehouse in January. TNS

(TNS) — State education officials and individual school districts are promoting a new grant program that will pay public school teachers to moonlight teaching STEM classes in private schools.

Under the new grant program, authorized under 2018 legislation signed by Gov. Phil Murphy, the Department of Education will provide a total of $5 million in grants to pay teachers who have registered for the program and have worked out a scheduling agreement with their own public school district and the private school that wants to hire him or her to teach a limited number of classes involving science, technology, engineering or math.

Jessani Gordon, finance director for the education department’s Office of Nonpublic School Programs, announced the availability of the grants, along with an April 15 application deadline, in a memo last week.

The program has been embraced by teachers and administrators more enthusiastically in some communities than others. One place that has aggressively marketed the program to teachers is Lakewood, where the rapidly growing Orthodox Jewish community sends its children almost exclusively to private yeshivas.

“We’re adding thousands of children a year to the community, and we need teachers,” said Rabbi Aaron Kotler, a leader of the local Orthodox community and president and CEO of Beth Medrash Gavoha, or BMG, a university-level yeshiva.

The Lakewood Public School District is leading Ocean County by far in the number of teachers who have made themselves available to private schools by registering for the STEM grant program with the Ocean County superintendent of schools. Of the 16 Ocean County teachers who have registered for program, 15 of them are from Lakewood, according to the district.

On Tuesday morning the district will host a meeting at Lakewood High School for parents and representatives from among the 127 yeshivas that operate in the township.

“Notice of grant opportunity” promulgated last week by state Education Commissioner Lamont Rebollet informed districts and private schools that the STEM grant program would provide teachers with additional pay beyond their public school salaries for teaching STEM classes to students in grades 7-12, “during hours mutually agreed upon by the teacher, district and nonpublic school.”

A spokesman for the state Department of Education, Michael Yaple, said it was up to private schools to contact registered teachers and arrive at an agreement with their district.

“The way the grant process works is that interested teachers send their names and contact info, via their districts, to their DOE county office of education," Yaple said in an email. “Nonpublic schools that are interested in pursuing the grant contact the county offices, ask for the list of teachers and then contact the teachers directly.”

The notice said public school teachers would be eligible for the program if they were certified in STEM, currently enrolled in a certification program, or pledged in writing to seek certification within two years. Registered teachers are placed on a list of available STEM instructors, which non-public schools can consult in order to arrange an agreement with them and their district. The grant application deadline is April 15.

Lakewood is not the only district where a large number of STEM teachers have registered. Among the 142 teachers that had registered for the program as of Thursday, 38 were from the Atlantic County Vocational School District, according to a list of registrants provided to NJ Advance Media.

Most districts are not represented by even a single registered teacher, a disparity that Lakewood school leaders said could be the result of a lack of marketing in places where there simply is not the kind of need for private school STEM teachers like there is in Lakewood.

The availability of additional pay for teaching STEM classes is intended to encourage teachers already working to earn their certification, and to lure more individuals with STEM-related undergraduate and graduate degrees to become teachers, according to this week’s notice. The program, the notice states, will "help address the difficulties public and nonpublic schools face in attracting qualified educators in the STEM fields.”

In Lakewood, families from the township‘s rapidly growing Orthodox Jewish community send 36,500 children to a total of 127 private yeshivas, said Michael Inzelbuch, the public school district’s board of education attorney and spokesman. Lakewood’s public school population, made up largely of Hispanic, African-American and non-Jewish white students, is about 6,100.

The uniquely imbalanced public-private student ratio in Lakewood has created a chronic budget shortfall for the public school district, which officials attribute mainly to the high cost of busing and special education for yeshiva students that state law mandates the district to pay. The district does receive aid for busing and special education, but its basic per-pupil state aid does not take Lakewood’s overwhelming number of private school students into account.

The emphasis on STEM education has grown in recent years as the digital economy has increased demand for ever-higher technical skills among graduates joining the workforce. Much of Lakewood’s local economy has traditionally been based on lower-skilled light manufacturing work. Kotler said tech companies have been starting up, and “the vision for Lakewood has been to move beyond light manufacturing.”

In a joint phone interview, Kotler and Inzelbuch said they were pushing the state program not because of any particular deficiency of STEM teachers in the yeshivas or poor student performance in that area.

Rather, the rapid growth in the number of Orthodox students — with about 2,500 additional students per year, according to Inzelbuch — means there is an increasingly urgent need in Lakewood for more STEM teachers, who are already a rare commodity in middle and high schools, both public and private.

Inzelbuch said public school students stand to benefit from the grant program if it is able to cultivate higher skilled STEM teachers, with the lure of additional pay. He said the teachers themselves would benefit from that added pay, which could amount to $50-60 an hour, or about 20% higher than the district’s average hourly wage.

“It’s not just a problem in Lakewood," Inzelbuch said. "Statewide there is a shortage of STEM-certified teachers."

©2020 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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