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Under the Lights, ESPs Shine

A local TV program goes into schools and showcases the hard work of support professionals.

By John Rosales

Bonnie Chalfant was accustomed to children running up to her at the grocery store and asking, “Is your bus parked outside?” Chalfant has been a school bus driver for New Jersey’s Gloucester Township Public School System for more than 25 years. She’s heard the comments more than once.

But it wasn’t until she started appearing on the PBS show, Classroom Close-up NJ, that she became famous outside her school district and with parents as well as students and administrators.

“I’ll be at the drug store and kids and their parents will come up to me and say, ‘You’re the bus driver that was on TV,’” says Chalfant, president of Gloucester Township Support Professionals.

For 13 years, Chalfant and other education support professionals (ESPs) have been appearing on a half-hour program co-produced by the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) and NJN Public Television, the local PBS affiliate. The broadcast, which has won seven Emmys, airs twice a week.

Classroom Close-up NJ has featured people and activities at more than 900 schools. The show is known for its in-depth exploration of education issues, local school culture, and events.

“A lot of people who make decisions about public schools have not been in a public school as adults,” says Wanda Swanson, the program’s executive producer and NJEA member. “They go to a school concert or football game. Our show brings the classroom into the home.”

Bus driver Bonnie Chalfant regularly appears on a PBS program that examines life inside New Jersey schools.
Photo: Courtesy NJEA

The show is hosted by NJEA Vice President Barbara Keshishian. While it examines all school activities, Swanson says she enjoys working with support professionals because they “do not toot their own horn enough.”

“[ESPs] need to say, ‘I’m making a difference,’” she says. “They are dedicated workers. They have a lot of pride, and I want to articulate that in the show.”

Chalfant and other ESPs recently joined police officers and city emergency workers for a show about how schools can work better with Homeland Security personnel. She was also featured on a program about bus safety that stressed the hazards related to drivers who pass school buses when the yellow lights are flashing.   

“Society believes NEA and NJEA are teacher organizations,” says Chalfant, a former NEA board member. “Classroom Close-up shows ESPs working hard for the school and students. It brings awareness to the community.”

And sometimes the show brings help. Michael Hunter, a security guard at Battin Alternative High School in Elizabeth, is the director of a student summer basketball league. After he was profiled on the show, four ESPs and a teacher offered to help coach one of the league’s 12 teams. “It generated a lot of interest,” he says. “We were able to expand to having a winter league.”

Hunter assumed management of the league after the Elizabeth City Parks and Recreation Service discontinued its sponsorship of the program. Hunter kept the league’s 300 players in uniforms and on the court by fundraising and recruiting volunteer coaches. He takes copies of the TV program to fundraising and community presentations.

Linda Dunn, a secretary at Seaview Elementary School in Linwood, also had a chance to introduce her literary work with students to the community. So did Sarah Zlogar, whose “Pay it Forward” project for eighth-graders at Millstone Township Middle School in Clarksburg had children write and illustrate books that are donated to children in Liberia.   

Classroom Close-up airs 104 times a year. The cost to produce and air the program is about $500,000 a year, or about $5,000 a show. Swanson says three goals are key to making such programs work:

Promote good things happening in schools. “So go into the schools and cover educational issues. This is not a ‘talking heads’ show,” Swanson says. “You actually see school employees doing great things.”

Partner with a television station (local cable company or PBS affiliate). “Let the station seek other sponsors. They have staff to fundraise and promote your program.”

Control content. “Maintain editorial approval of the show’s content.”

“Classroom Close-up is one of the best things about NJEA,” Chalfant says.

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