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Montclair High School and the district have come in for heavy criticism over perceived failures to address a shortage of physics teachers.
PHOTO COURTESY TJEVANS/PIXABAY

By Erin Roll
roll@montclairlocal.news

It’s halfway through the school year and one class of AP Physics students has gone without a full-time teacher since the previous teacher announced his departure last May. Now students say they may not pass the test in May.

On Wednesday, Feb. 5, students found out that they had lost a district teacher who had been filling in, although his certification is in advanced math. The first teacher supposedly hired to teach AP physics classes was a no show in September, according to junior Isaac Liu.

A parent attending the Feb. 5 Board of Education meeting, with about eight AP physics students, told Interim Superintendent Nathan Parker the students needed an immediate answer. “The kids themselves are desperate for answers for tomorrow morning,” she said. 

The next day, Feb. 6, high school parents received an email saying that Isaac’s father, Charles Liu, an associate professor of astrophysics at CUNY and who had been working with the students on the basics until a full-time staffer could take over, had agreed to teach the course for the remainder of the term. He presided over the class on Friday, Feb. 7. 

On Wednesday morning, Feb. 12, Principal Anthony Grosso told students and parents in an email that Richard Hymson, physics teacher at MHS, would be collaborating with Liu in teaching the class over the next few weeks while Liu continues the process of obtaining his substitute certification for Essex County.

11 weeks till exam time

Students and their parents attended the Feb. 5 BOE meeting imploring the district to come up with a solution, whether it was to assign a qualified teacher to the vacant section or offer an online class. 

In a letter sent to parents and students on Feb. 5, students learned that their teacher would not be teaching the class for the remainder of the year. No reason was given. 

Ted Wilson, a junior, said the teacher who has been substitute teaching their section did a good job under the circumstances, but was not qualified to teach physics with a background teaching trigonometry and calculus. 

As a result of losing time searching for a replacement and the second teacher was not a qualified physics teacher, students said they have only covered two of the seven units and were at risk of not passing the AP physics exam this spring. 

Rafid Quayum, a junior, recalled starting the school year with excitement over taking physics, a subject that he plans to continue studying in college. But at the start of the year, he realized his schedule said “Teacher TBD.” During the month of September, he said, the class received no instruction time. 

Isaac Liu said that the AP exam takes time to prepare for — time that has been lost. “We only get one shot at it. We either succeed, or we don’t,” he said.

Nearly all of the affected students are juniors, Quayum said. “This is one of our most important years, leading into college and beyond. And there’s so many things we have had to struggle with,” Quayum said. “We were back at square one, back in September, where we had no instruction and no idea what to do.”

Parent Gregor Clark said the school was putting students in the position of having to explain to colleges, including some of the most prestigious institutions in the country, why they had not achieved in AP Physics.

“I feel completely out of options,” he said.

Left without a teacher

George Buccino, a junior in one of the other classes, said that there have been problems with communication, lack of advance notice for quizzes, tests and deadlines, and the basics of the material not being covered. “I am not learning physics, and I doubt most students are,” Buccino told BOE members. “I am here asking for help. Please help us immediately.”

Jill Raleigh, Buccino’s mother, said that there was an ongoing problem with parents’ phone calls and emails going unanswered. “This is Montclair, New Jersey. We can do better than this.” 

In a subsequent interview, Raleigh said: “It feels like with everything else going on in the district, this kind of fell off the table. Being told we’re looking into an online course in February, that’s ridiculous.” 

Raleigh and her husband hired a tutor for their son, since he is not doing well in the class. But, she said, hiring a tutor is not financially feasible for many other families with children taking physics. 

Her son has now opted not to take the AP test. “He knew better than the adults running the district that this was an untenable situation.”

The students paid $95 each for the exam fee.

The problems with physics

Montclair has been struggling to find qualified candidates to fill the physics vacancies, Parker said. 

“It’s the most difficult position in New Jersey to fill,” Parker said. The district began searching for a new physics teacher in May, a time Parker said “when it is virtually impossible to hire a new physics teacher in New Jersey. We’ve searched high and low.” He also said the district has asked for help from the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Montclair State University and Essex County College. “I’ve literally written to all superintendents in Essex and Union counties asking if they know anyone,” he said. 

A search of job openings for physics teachers in New Jersey came up with 51 openings.

Parker said the district is planning a job fair in late February or early March to address staff shortages overall. 

A 2013 study by the National Task Force on Teacher Education found that schools across the United States were experiencing a shortage of qualified physics teachers. 

In 2013, the Physics Teacher Education Coalition found that physics and chemistry were two of the areas of greatest need for new teachers, with less than half of physics and chemistry classes being taught by teachers who were certified in those areas. Conversely, however, the number of high school students taking physics went from 600,000 in 1987 to 1.2 million in 2013. 

“Physics is such an important course, because it’s where math and science and history and philosophy come together,” said Bob Goodman, the executive director of the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning. Physics classes in ninth grade provide students with a good grounding for later courses such as chemistry, he added. 

Starting in 2009, NJCTL embarked on a program to address an ongoing shortage of physics teachers in New Jersey by training more teachers, who were certified teachers but did not necessarily have a background in certain subject areas such as physics or chemistry.

On Friday, Feb. 7, Charles Liu taught his first official class in Montclair: a lesson on circular motion. The students were all motivated to learn the material, he said. “Timing is tight, but we’ll get it done because these students are great.”