NEA Big Read is coming to Toms River.

A program of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), NEA Big Read is designed to “broaden our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book.” Toms River Regional Schools is one of 75 not-for-profit organizations to receive a grant to host a project between September 2017 and June 2018. The NEA presents NEA Big Read in partnership with Arts Midwest.

The district received a grant of $14,000 in support of its proposed program. Applicants were asked to choose from a diverse pool of 28 NEA-approved contemporary books, and design around it a relevant and impactful literacy program that includes book discussions, special events, and thematic projects. The district selected Station Eleven, a bestselling, post-apocalyptic novel by author Emily St. John Mandel. In the book, a flu pandemic creates chaos and loss for its central characters, who attempt to keep humanity alive through the arts. Through this lens, the district’s NEA Big Read will facilitate discussions and reflections on Superstorm Sandy and its effect on Toms River. The month-long program will take place throughout October 2017, five years to the month after the storm.

“NEA Big Read will be an extraordinary, emotional, and fun way for our students, families, and community to connect through a single book,” said Superintendent David Healy. “We are thrilled to have earned the opportunity to host a literacy campaign on this scale. Our vision is to bring all of Toms River together for programs and events that we’ll be talking about for years to come.”

The district’s pursuit of NEA Big Read was backed by its Board of Education, which approved literacy as a core goal for the school year. Station Elevenwill be included on the Summer Reading list for some 5,000 high school students; it will be dispersed in schools and throughout the community in creative ways; and programs will be designed to meet individual needs, like those of English Language Learners (ELLs).

“It’s exciting when an opportunity comes along like this to address an educational goal for our students while at the same time building community,” said School Board President Ben Giovine. “The Board eagerly and excitedly supports the district’s hosting of NEA Big Read.”

For this literacy campaign, Toms River Schools will partner directly with Ocean County Library. Jeannie Collacott, OCL’s teen services systems coordinator, will oversee the implementation of NEA Big Read programming at the flagship Toms River branch. The library will stock hundreds of copies of the novel and will host NEA Big Read’s kick-off event October 2. Other community partners include the Greater Toms River Chamber of Commerce, the Jay and Linda Grunin Foundation, Ocean County Long Term Recovery Group, Toms River Fire Company No. 1, and Ocean County College.

The district’s project team is led by Tonya Rivera, high school English supervisor, and includes educators, curriculum directors, administrators, and grant writer Mike Kenny. Rivera and Kenny worked closely to select the novel, develop the program concepts, and submit the application.

“The elements of Station Eleven that link to Superstorm Sandy will provide a unique opportunity for reflection and catharsis for Toms River,” said Rivera. “That this program will take place exactly five years after the storm is seamless, an ideal time to consider its impact on all of us. Besides that, the book is an enjoyable, engaging, and suspenseful novel that I think our students and community will be eager to discuss.”

NEA Big Read– particularly the selection of Station Eleven— is in line with several district initiatives beyond literacy. The book touches on a number of topics: the science of pandemic disease, the performing arts, literature, psychology, celebrity culture, and graphic arts. This kind of effort toward having students experience different subjects as an integrated whole builds on the district’s initiatives to adopt a maker mindset. Participants will not only be encouraged to read and discuss the novel, but will also use it as a source of inspiration to create projects, perform, write poems or essays, or produce comic art. The innovative makerspaces at each high school, Ocean County Library, and the district’s own Jersey Shore Makerfest in October will provide venues to do so.

Superintendent Healy has released an open letter to the Toms River community inviting participation in NEA Big Read. A timeline of events will soon be posted, which will include an October 19 event at High School North’s theater featuring an address by Congressman Tom MacArthur, a panel discussion at Ocean County College featuring the book’s author, and integration with the town’s famed Halloween Parade.

Toms River students, staff, parents, families, and residents interested in participating in NEA Big Read can do so by reading Station Eleven, texting @7g9gk to 81010 for October programming reminders, following @TRBigRead on Twitter, and bookmarking Toms River’s NEA Big Read website, which contains all applicable Big Read information.

This is the first year the National Endowment for the Arts and NEA Arts Midwest have opened the Big Read application to school districts, making Toms River Regional Schools’ selection all the more significant. In fact, Toms River Schools is one of only two school districts nationwide to receive a Big Read grant, and one of only three awardees in New Jersey. In light of decreased state aid and limited funding resulting from factors like Sandy, the district has successfully pursued and attained alternative sources of funding such as sponsorships and grants. The Big Read marks another in a growing list of district awards that includes EPA rebates for new school buses, an NJDOE-funded Title I arts-integration pilot program, and a classroom remodel from Steelcase Education. Toms River Regional Schools’ fiscal and curriculum-based pursuits are in line with its Board-approved goals and college- and career-readiness initiatives. For the 2017-2018 school year, the district will introduce three Career Academies at its high schools.


NEA Big Read

NEA Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) created to broaden our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book. Showcasing a diverse range of contemporary books that reflect many different voices and perspectives, the NEA Big Read aims to inspire conversation and discovery. For more information, visit

Toms River Regional Schools

For more information on the curriculum, contact Norma DeNoia at

For more information about the Big Read mission, contact Tonya Rivera at .

For more information on grants and partnerships, please contact Mike Kenny at or 732-505-5539.

For more information on makerspace and innovation initiatives, contact Marc Natanagara at