NORTH BRUNSWICK – Janet Ciarrocca has spent almost 34 years in education.
She began teaching at a Catholic school while she was pursuing her master’s degree from Seton Hall University.
She spent eight years in a classroom in Warren Township.
She then became a library media specialist, while pursuing a second master’s degree in library media.
Two years later, Ciarrocca moved to the Watchung school district and worked as a library media specialist for grades K-4 for 10 years.
She said this gave her an opportunity to be on committees and take leadership roles, and then she attained her administrative certificate for principalship/supervisors and school administration.
She then became the principal of the Learning Community Charter School in Jersey City.
“I went from a suburban district to a very urban school district, but it was a very creative, mom-and-pop school with a very diverse population,” she said.
Ciarrocca said that became a “proving ground,” because she learned a skill set that is applicable to her current term as superintendent of the North Brunswick Public School district.
She moved from the charter district to the public school district, first starting as principal of Livingston Park Elementary School in 2013 for four years, then moving to director of Curriculum, Instruction and Technology for the entire district.
She said this tied in her love of technology with a love of the media center.
Ciarrocca has been named the district’s acting superintendent of schools.
She said she enjoyed working along Superintendent of Schools Brian Zychowski for four years, “learning alongside him as a mentor; there is so much more to know in a bigger district.”
She also credited the Board of Education members – and called her teaching staff and nursing staff “heroic” for all they have done to adjust for their students.
“I’m very excited to be here and am honored to be able to be in this position. My decision making is driven by what is best for the students,” she said. “This is a great town. I’m looking forward to leaving my influence here and building on what Dr. Zychowski left.”
Ciarrocca said some of her long-term goals include improving communication throughout the school district, including with social media outlets for parents.
“It’s like customer service, making sure we are there for families and what they need and how we respond to them,” she said.
She said she wants to focus on the partnership between the school district and the township; work on a new strategic plan, with the Board of Education, for the next three years; continue to focus on equity and make sure there are diverse and equitable practices, while also exploring the best equitable teaching methods; ensuring a safe and welcoming environment for all students; and improve listening tools with families.
“We want to make everybody feel safe and have the opportunity to learn and be supported,” Ciarrocca said.
The Return to School
North Brunswick schools were on a virtual and then hybrid learning schedule for the 2020-21 school year.
When students were allowed to come back into the buildings, by choice, Ciarrocca was part of the team that led the return to school plan.
Amy Rumbo is the assistant superintendent. Rosa Hock is the business administrator/board secretary. Brian Falkowski is the assistant business administrator. Christopher Harry is director of Pupil Personnel Service. Dr. Frederick Johnson became director of Curriculum, Instruction and Technology. Mercy Chang was hired as director of Accountability and Special Programs.
“Dr. Zychowski built leadership from within,” Ciarrocca said.
That is why Zychowski said he was confident in choosing Ciarrocca as his replacement when he retired on July 1. He had said she did well with planning for a safe return of students and staff. He recommended to the Board of Education that she be named acting superintendent for the next year.
“We wanted to focus on back to school, not a new leader … so we can keep things running smoothly,” Ciarrocca said. “I feel very comfortable. I have an amazing administrative team that Dr. Zychowski helped build.”
For the upcoming school year, mandates have been constantly changing, so although there have been many options considered, Ciarrocca said that as of press time, the expectation was to have the 6,000 students return in person on Sept. 1.
Ciarrocca said the staff is 97% vaccinated, and although she did not have a firm count, she said many students over age 12 have come through a vaccine clinic held by the district at the new North Brunswick Township Middle School; she said another clinic should be planned for September.
Gov. Phil Murphy announced on Aug. 6 that masks would be required at least during the beginning of school.
The district will maintain the protocols from the beginning of the year, Ciarrocca said, in terms of cleaning and maintenance. Anyone who is feeling ill is expected to stay home; parents can fill out a symptoms form on the Genesis system, while staff members will also have access to a daily tracker.
Ciarrocca said there are plans such as having students remain in their cohorts; assigning seating at lunch; resuming gym and music classes; continuing sports; and holding afterschool clubs.
The township’s LEAL program will provide before-school and after-school care at each elementary school for students in grades 2-4, and at Linwood School for fifth and sixth graders.
The district has contracted with Right at School to provide before and after care at each elementary school for pre-K, kindergarten and first grade students; and at the new North Brunswick Township Early Learning Center for pre-K.
She said anything can be revisited, such as testing, protocols and academics.
“We will be as flexible as we have to be as things change around us,” she said. “To get the staff back in and students back in for a full day is a big deal and we have to support our students and support our staff socially and emotionally.”
Ciarrocca said Chartwells will continue providing school lunches, which will be free for every student this year. She said parents who are normally eligible for free and reduced price lunch should still apply as usual since there are other benefits available from the state.
Busing will be available in a double-tiered system: buses for students from pre-K to fourth grade, as well as Lightbridge Academy and Acelero, will be brought to school at the same times fifth- and sixth-graders will be dropped off at Linwood School; while tier two will bus in the middle school and high school students.
Currently, positions are open for bus drivers, substitute teachers, instructional aides and lunch aides.
Furthermore, the Special Services Department is working on a return to school initiative to combat worry and anxiety.
There will be “a shift from illness to wellness” as the district makes resources available for anyone needing mental health services.
For example, the North Brunswick School District is partnering with Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care for virtual group sessions. “We’ve Been Home for a Year: Now What?” will help students prepare to transition from remote to in-person learning, gain coping and social skills, and feel confident and excited for the new year.
Groups met virtually twice a week for two weeks, separated by grade level.
“It’s part health and wellness, part mental health,” the superintendent said. “Whatever challenges are out there, we aspire to bring back and support the kids as best we can and accelerate learning.”
District administrators were back in the building as of Aug. 1, “trying to be as normal as possible,” Ciarrocca said.
Principals are preparing for in-person orientations – especially for freshman and sophomores who have not been to the high school yet; and students of the new North Brunswick Township Middle School, which technically opened last school year, but has not had many students in person.
“We want to give kids familiarity,” she said.
Overall, Ciarrocca said, all decisions are being made as a team.
She has also consulted with other superintendents in Middlesex County.
“All the experience I have has prepared me to do this,” she said, “but you get to the best decisions by engaging everyone in the best discussions.”
Early Childhood Center
Part of the referendum from 2016 that approved the new seventh and eighth grade middle school and realigned Linwood School for fifth and sixth grades also called for the relocation of the board administrative offices to part of Linwood School, and the renovation of part of the school for the North Brunswick Township Early Childhood Center.
The renovations at both locations were completed by architect Pete Campisano, a North Brunswick native.
Ciarrocca said the district is evaluating the number of kindergartners and preschool students who will enroll for the 2021-22 school year, since many parents kept their children at home last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
There are about 400 third-graders and 440 fourth-graders enrolled in the district.
There are three or four preschool classes at each of the four elementary schools. There are an additional 11 classrooms built at Linwood: four integrated, and seven for students with special needs or disabilities.
Originally, the preschool center was at Our Lady of Lourdes in Milltown. Although the term ends Aug. 31, the move was set to take place mid-August.
Scott Passner is the principal of the early childhood center, which will have its own entrance and wing off Linwood.
“We are excited to get the kids in here,” Ciarrocca said. “When you visit a preschooler, your day won’t be so bad.”
North Brunswick residents also have access to preschool classes at Lightbridge Academy on Route 27, and Acelero on Route 1.
Preschool is free for every North Brunswick student through a grant.
Maple Meade, which housed the board offices, will now be a hub for the Buildings and Grounds crews.
Board of Education meetings will be held at Linwood School, accessible from a separate entrance. The meetings had been held in person since April from the high school, but the plan is to have the new room up and running for the August meeting. Plus, Ciarrocca said, the goal is to have the meetings streamed live on North Brunswick Cable 15.
For more information, visit nbtschools.org
Contact Jennifer Amato at firstname.lastname@example.org