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Superintendent Kendra Johnson. COURTESY MONTCLAIR PUBLIC SCHOOLS

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

On Friday, May 4, Kendra Johnson was into her fourth day as Montclair’s new superintendent of schools.

And so far, it’s been going well, Johnson said.

“The adjustment has been quite smooth, being that I already know the players, I already know the systems, so other than moving the space, the adjustment has been very smooth,” she said during a phone interview with the Montclair Local.

Johnson was announced as Montclair’s new superintendent on April 11, and she succeeds Interim Superintendent Barbara Pinsak. Johnson is the first permanent superintendent in three years, following the departure of Penny MacCormack in 2015. Additionally, she is the first African-American woman to hold the position of superintendent in Montclair’s history.

Johnson started out as the district’s assistant superintendent for equity, curriculum and instruction. She was the first person to hold that title, after the district created the role as part of its efforts to address the achievement gap.

Before coming to Montclair, Johnson worked as a teacher, principal and school administrator in Baltimore’s public schools and in Washington state.

“The first thing I want to do is be a good listener, so I know about the issue as it pertains to the equity, curriculum and instruction side, but moving into a superintendent, having a vision across all sides and all sectors is something that I need to adjust to so not assuming, really leaning in and being a good listener.” She said that she had already identified some goals that she wants to focus on.

Johnson will hold a listening session at Charles H. Bullock School at 7 p.m. on Monday, May 14. It is expected to be the first of several such sessions.

Montclair’s achievement gap and how to close it is an issue that has been in the forefront in recent months.

“I think that the board has already been amazingly committed to this work,” Johnson said. First was the creation of the assistant superintendent for equity. The roles of student advocate and the teacher on assignment for restorative justice were also steps in the right direction. She also referred to ongoing data analyses being complied.

“When you talk about closing the achievement gap we need to first truly understand in this moment what achievement gaps we do have, and then we need to look at what are the antecedents to why we have those gaps. So if we’re looking why students, for example, aren’t in AP classes, that begins way before high school. So our high school colleagues carry some of the weight in helping students to be successful, but we need to look toward our middle schools and elementary schools to figure out what more can we do to push the trajectory towards meeting with expectations from AP classes,” she said.

Montclair is planning to start a collection of data related to the achievement gap. Once the data has been collected, the district will then decide how to use it.

“So we know we have excellent teachers, we’re going to continue supporting teachers and really making sure we have great…professional development, that’s a priority, we’re going to make sure that we continue to collaborate with students’ first teachers, which are their parents and legal guardians, so we’re going to be working tirelessly with parents, making sure that we’re constantly understanding their hopes and desires for their children,” she said.

The district needed to set up different pathways for achievement, one for high-achieving students, one for more average students and one for those who are having trouble keeping up with their grade level, she said.

“That’s how we’re going to close the achievement gap.”

Other priorities include curriculum review, with a curriculum writing process set to take place over the summer, and working with the police and administration on security reviews.

“Making sure our students are safe is of utmost importance,” she said. There will also be a job diversity fair for prospective staff members on May 19.

Parents and staff members have been reaching out to her with ideas and input for the schools, Johnson said, “We live in a great town of Montclair, so we know folks have thousands of ideas.”