Sparking a Culture of Innovation in Northern New Jersey - Digital Promise

Sparking a Culture of Innovation in Northern New Jersey

September 13, 2018 | By

From creating academies for student learning in Leonia School District to establishing a STEM program for girls in Wyckoff School District, there is plenty of great work to spotlight and learn from in Northern New Jersey. Prior to Northern Ignite, an Education Innovation Cluster in Northern New Jersey, there were very few formalized ways to share or celebrate this work.

Adam Fried, superintendent of Harrington Park School District in Bergen County, New Jersey, is one of the initial founders of Northern Ignite. Fried and his fellow collaborators are intent on sharing best practices and growing an innovative mindset throughout the county, and they’re enthusiastic about the innovation happening within county lines, across 76 school districts that serve 136,000 students.

Education Innovation Clusters (EdClusters) are local communities of practice that bring together stakeholders across sectors to support innovative teaching and learning in their region. By working together, partners form networks that are positioned to design, launch, iterate on, and disseminate breakthrough learning practices and tools. Northern Ignite is a burgeoning cluster made up of superintendents, directors of curriculum, principals, and teachers who come together regularly to learn from one another. “We want to build opportunities for the whole group, not just the top of the pyramid,” notes Fried in the decision to include all tiers of the educational system.

We want to build opportunities for the whole group, not just the top of the pyramid.
Adam Fried
Superintendent, Harrington Park School District

Bergen County comprises with districts and schools that deliver results. When traditional systems seem to be working in a highly localized educational ecosystem, leaders are sometimes hesitant to innovate in small districts. Leveraging the ethos of collaboration embraced by the Digital Promise Education Innovation Clusters network, Fried and other Bergen County educators formed the Northern Ignite cluster to meet regularly, visit each other’s schools, and work together to ensure the best education models possible are being developed and made available to the students of northern New Jersey. What began as a single meeting of 12 people at Harrington Park has grown into a regular gathering of more than 50 educators.

Northern Ignite has launched cohorts formed around five topics the cluster’s members identified as critical: blended learning, career technical education, 1:1 implementation, health and wellness, and STEM and STEAM. In 2017, the cluster held site visits to Pascack Valley Regional High School District and Leonia School District, ignite talks, immersive professional development experiences, and an “edcamp” summer program for leaders. In collaboration with EdSurge, Northern Ignite hosted an event with 700 attendees at Ramapo College that exposed educators to both the edtech and edtech venture capital worlds.

700 attendees gathered at Ramapo College for Northern Ignite’s event, co-hosted with EdSurge, in 2016.

Many districts have taken away learnings and implemented new programs as a result of being involved in Northen Ignite. Harrington Park School District, for example, connected with DreamIT and StartUpEd, who brought incubator groups into the district to pitch educators “Shark Tank” style; educators had the opportunity to learn about new products and services, ask questions, and provide feedback to developers looking to best serve them.

This model of collaboration, focused on school visits and networking, is centered on the educator piece of the EdCluster model. By offering educators an immersive professional learning opportunity outside of the “sit-and-get professional development [model] with cold bagels,” notes Fried, Northern Ignite leaders have already seen cluster participants embrace new ideas and opportunities.

Richard Kuder of Wyckoff School District addresses Northern Ignite at a biannual meeting in 2017.

To date, the efforts toward organizing Northern Ignite have been a completely self-funded and volunteer-led effort. The group communicates on a Slack channel, started and moderated by Fried. The buses and food are provided by host districts. They’ve adopted a template for site visits. They’re beginning to connect with the private sector in hopes of identifying a funding schema to take this work to the next level.

We’re all seeing that this is a powerful experience - 76 school districts in Bergen County, that are sometimes very isolated, are now connected in a meaningful way.
Erik Gundersen
Superintendent, Pascack Valley Regional High School District

When speaking of next steps and growth opportunities, the group is hoping to build philanthropic connections to extend their reach and impact. Erik Gundersen, superintendent of Pascack Valley Regional High School District, a member of Northern Ignite and the League of Innovative Schools says, “We’re all seeing that this is a powerful experience – 76 school districts in Bergen County, that are sometimes very isolated, are now connected in a meaningful way. What we need is… some large corporation or organization that wants to invest not just financially but [also their] resources to make improvements to education in this region.” Currently, Northern Ignite supports a strong network of educators to learn from one another; as the group evolves, they hope to grow the work to be more multidisciplinary, engaging more formally with partners in industry and higher education.

To continue to bring more opportunities to educators in Bergen County, Northern Ignite will host a fall institute, a spring institute, edcamps, and site visits for participants in the coming school year. The group is also looking to broker more relationships in the research sector; Bergen County houses a lot of pharmaceutical industry partners, with whom Northern Ignite hopes to build meaningful relationships.

The lack of funding is not putting out the Northern Ignite fire. While financial resources are not yet available, there is committed human capital to keep them going. Fried notes that his hope for the group is to “restructure the idea of professional growth and impact practice and craft. If the things that we do over the next five years impact practice and craft and we help districts evolve, then we’ve done something.”

Visit Digital Promise to learn more about Education Innovation Clusters.

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