“We’re seeing school folks sitting down with people from the health department or from the police department. Everyone should have a stake in making their schools better, even if people are viewing the issue from a different perspective.”

Public education, in its very essence, is changing. Whether that movement relates to pedagogy, curriculum, the Common Core or related standardized testing, students and teachers are undergoing a transformational shift unseen in a generation.

That, coupled with the complexities of kids being kids, got Daniel Oscar, president and CEO of the Princeton-based Center for Supportive Schools (CSS) to ask: Is everyone—from administrators to parents to students—on the same page when addressing student needs? And, if not, what resources and tools do they need?

That was three years ago. Today, CSS has unveiled “Campaign Connect-New Jersey,” designed to encourage our public schools to become safer, more supportive, engaging, and inspiring and to provide them with the tools and resources to do so.

“When students are immersed in an environment where they feel connected to their school community through healthy relationships with adults and peers, they come to believe that people in their schools value them and want them to succeed.” Oscar said.

This is a key to greater academic achievement, Oscar said, adding that goals like reduced bullying, lower dropout rates, improved grades, fewer discipline referrals, and fewer high-risk behaviors are all realistic byproducts of a more nurturing environment.

This comprehensive approach to fostering better school communities is what led the Community Foundation to back the Center for Supportive Schools with several grants, most recently a Greater Mercer Grant under the category of “Building Community.”

“The Campaign Connect initiative is precisely the type of program we look to support because we think it will successfully remove the barriers that can prevent communities from being fully inclusive and prevent its residents from being fully engaged,” said Nancy Kieling, Community Foundation president.

The Community Foundation is currently in the third year of a five-year commitment in support of Campaign Connect. “We got involved in this project because, at its heart, it’s about connecting districts, individual schools and stakeholders within each school to create a problem-solving network,” Kieling said.

Oscar recognized the effect of the strong partnership between the Center for Supportive Schools and the Community Foundation, saying the progress from year one to now has been significant.

“The Community Foundation, both as a funder and a thought partner, gave us the opportunity to grapple with difficult issues and test new ideas as we developed Campaign Connect. We look forward to extending the reach of Campaign Connect throughout the United States and are proud that it began here serving the schools of Mercer County,” he said.

Campaign Connect – New Jersey, which hopes to eventually work with districts throughout the state, is implementing a two-part pilot initiative. The first part assembles district leaders from across the county—both public and private schools—along with nonprofits that work in schools, to talk about the issue of helping kids feel engaged at school.

The second part, Oscar said, illustrates that sustainability is no longer exclusively about environmental issues. Modeling itself after the statewide nonprofit Sustainable Jersey, which works with individual towns to develop sustainability plans and certification, Campaign Connect intends to design its own certification system, recognizing districts for achievement based on progress toward stated goals.

While the program is nascent, Oscar is optimistic that “even in this early stage, we’re seeing superintendents, principals, teachers and students sitting down together at a table and having, for the very first time, a conversation that removes walls between the schools.”

The result? “Superintendents are hearing from students about issues that a top administrator might normally see from a very different perspective,” Oscar said. “These conversations can prove to be very powerful in creating a better environment for everyone.”

Another goal of Campaign Connect – New Jersey is to break down silos between a local school district and municipality, possibly resulting in better town-wide policy decisions.

“We’re seeing school folks sitting down with people from the health department or from the police department,” Oscar said. “Everyone should have a stake in making their schools better, even if people are viewing the issue from a different perspective.”

As of June, Campaign Connect – New Jersey is working in school districts in Trenton, Princeton, East Windsor, West Windsor-Plainsboro, and Robbinsville. Each has assembled an advisory board comprising stakeholders, including school leaders, nonprofit and business leaders, university researchers, social investors and philanthropists, parents and key community members.

“We track attendance and promotion rates in our schools, but what we’re also focusing on is those things that are less quantifiable, but are, in many ways, equally important,” Oscar said.

“Bottom line is: Do students feel safe? Do they practice a healthy lifestyle? Do they exhibit good social and emotional character?” Oscar said. “Moving forward, we will identify movement toward those goals, build on what works and, hopefully, develop a statewide infrastructure for success.”

For more information, visit www.supportiveschools.org.