by TINA KELLEY
for Montclair Local
Montclair Local reached out to dozens of stakeholders in the town’s schools for the most important improvements they would like to see in the district in the next few years. Consider it their platform for the next superintendent, a wish list for how community members would like to see the school system improve.
Montclair residents are proud of its racial and socioeconomic diversity, its noteworthy, creative citizens, its proximity to New York, and its thriving commercial areas. In an ideal world, and given past precedent, Montclair would also have world-class schools that attract renters and home buyers.
But those who look at the Montclair School District’s current problems can make a long list: a gap between the performance of white students and students of color that has persisted for decades; old buildings with serious and at times dangerous maintenance problems, and middling statewide rankings. According to recent community forums, school board meetings have been lacking in civility, and morale in the school buildings needs a significant boost, both likely resulting from shifting leadership — seven superintendents in an eight-year period.
Still, people involved in the school system say the district has much going for it: its magnet schools, innovative programs like Montclair High School’s small learning communities, and, perhaps most important, a community that cares deeply about its schools and is invested in working to improve them.
Charlene Peterson, who conducted three community meetings earlier this year as part of the superintendent search that the district hired the New Jersey School Boards Association to conduct, took note of the sometimes distrustful and disheartened comments from the approximately 100 residents in attendance. At the meetings, held at the Charles H. Bullock School, Northeast Elementary School, and the central office, some parents and teachers expressed worry that the district’s history of high turnover and inner turbulence would scare candidates away.
Across the state, superintendents have been staying in their jobs only 2.7 years on average, said Peterson, a field service representative for the school boards association. Superintendents lost tenure in the early 1990s, and the state capped their salaries for eight years, ending last July, pushing many to take jobs in New York or Pennsylvania. They could work as interim superintendents in New Jersey, but for only two years at a time.
Peterson tried to reassure residents. “Think of all that the right person could accomplish here,” she said at Bullock. “Think about the change you could make and the good you could do there. That’s an attractive thing, to be able to see you can make a difference.” She added that many other school boards complain to her that no one ever comes to parent nights or board meetings, not a concern in Montclair.
Overall, people at the forums described the ideal superintendent candidate as someone who will work for equity and educational excellence, with a deep understanding of the history of Montclair and appreciation of its magnet schools. There was near-universal agreement that the district needs a superintendent committed to staying for the duration – three, five, even 10 years, if possible. And beyond a new leader, stakeholders have additional dreams for the school system.
Here’s a sampling, with subjects quoted in alphabetical order:
Diane Anglin, the interim education chair of the Montclair NAACP, a former PTA council president and a graduate of Montclair schools, wants the district to find out why some parents are sending their students to private schools and to work harder to retain them.
“We have to make sure these magnet schools are differentiated, because if every school is the same, you won’t go to a specific school,” she added, and that would hurt integration. “We have to be defining these magnets, and make sure they’re strong.”
Finally, she wants a strong leader for the district. “I don’t want a superintendent who is run by the community,” she said. “I want them to come and run our schools.”
Linda Bowers, a graduate of the Montclair schools and former head of the School Action Team at the high school, would like to see “a space for parents and stakeholders to productively support the district,” noting a dearth of ways for parents to help out, which she thinks may contribute to the contentiousness of recent school board meetings.
Her wish list includes a long-term capital plan for the district’s aging buildings, more public-private partnerships to improve the schools, and for the district to collect information on how its graduates fare after high school – how well-prepared were they for college, jobs, or the military, what were their strengths and weaknesses, and do they feel they should’ve made different choices?
“We need a union that understands that teacher and student success is not mutually exclusive, and that dumbing down the system to make the students look like they’re doing better is not helpful to kids, teachers, parents, or the community,” Bowers said. “The union becomes very protective of its teachers, probably for good reason, probably because we’re not supporting them correctly. We need a strong support system and a strong and fair administration, so everybody is not backed up against the wall.”
Speaking for herself, school board member Priscilla Church wants to see coordination of education at the elementary school level, so each student has the same core subject experience, without taking away from the excitement for learning found in the magnet schools, which she called the “crown jewels” of the district. She wants a superintendent who is committed to staff development.
Damion Frye, a fourth-generation Montclair resident who taught in the high school for four years, would like to see more of an emphasis on career and technical education in the high school, to complement college prep and improve the on-time graduation rate of 93.6%. Students interested in computer programming or technical skills should be encouraged to pursue those fields, he said. He would also like to see Montclair High School offer a dual-enrollment program, so students can take community college courses, saving on four-year college costs. His wish list includes better parent-teacher communication about homework, longer parent-teacher conferences, and a later high school start time.
Brian Fleischer, former district business administrator and current president of the Hillside PTA, wants to see investment in school facilities, to make sure they’re safe and ready for 21st century learning, and wants to invest in solving the achievement/opportunity gap, which has persisted for 30 years, since he was a student here, he said. He knows from experience that the 2 percent cap on tax levy increases limits the district’s power — “generally the cost to maintain the status quo goes up by more than they’re allowed to raise revenues” — so he’d like to see more evaluation of current programs, so if one isn’t working, funds can be invested better. He added, “Nothing is more important than attracting and retaining the best teachers and principals.”
Robert Goodman, executive director of the nonprofit New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning, would like to see Montclair adopt a program he instituted in the Bergen County Technical High School that helped erase the achievement gap and improved student performance for those starting from all levels. He taught physics to freshmen, encouraged them from the beginning to take the AP Physics exam, and guided mixed-level groups of varying levels to teach each other the material.
“The stronger students would advance faster than they would’ve,” he said, “because they were becoming teachers – you really don’t know it until you teach it.” The school’s top students ranked among the top in the state, and the school had the highest percentage of students taking the AP Physics exam, even though it was a vocational school.
He said he met with Montclair district officials several years ago but could not get adequate parent/teacher commitment to equity to bring the program here.
Former board President Laura Hertzog said an improved infrastructure tops her wish list for the schools, because kids can’t learn in buildings that are too hot or falling apart, and repairs, like those to the high school stairwell, take huge amounts of administrative bandwidth.
She would like to see two relatively simple and inexpensive steps to address the achievement gap: identify students who do well on the PSATs and make sure they are in classes that challenge them optimally, and have comprehensive conversations with students who are dropping from high to lower academic levels.
“Are we providing enough support?” she asked. “They can get discouraged easily, especially if they don’t have friends in those classes with them.” She wants to be sure that schools challenge students appropriately, regardless of whether they have strong parent advocates.
On the elementary level, she would like to see more time allowed for innovative programs to catch on, like the Lucy Calkins Teachers Writing Program, which succeeded in some schools briefly. If innovations prove successful, they should spread to all schools, regardless of the resources of each PTA, as should instrumental music lessons.
Ross Kasun, one of three frontrunners in the search that resulted in Dr. Kendra Johnson becoming Montclair’s superintendent, said it’s key for a board of education to be very supportive of its superintendent’s vision and goals, allowing him or her to be “truly the instructional leader.” To address the achievement gap requires an openness and willingness to change, said Kasun, now the superintendent of the Lawrenceville Township public schools. He advocates new ways to teach basic skills, aiming to reach disaffected, struggling students and working toward their strengths.
Joseph S. Kavesh, a board member from 2016 to 2019, would like to see smaller class sizes in the middle school, more support of robotics, and sensible tenure reform with meaningful evaluations, for the few teachers who are not effective but can adversely impact hundreds of students. And because of funding restraints, he would like to see the K-12 schools in order before addressing prekindergarten classes.
Kathy Maloy, head of the Special Education Parent Advisory Council, said that for the 18 percent of Montclair’s students in special education, the most important goal is the least restrictive environment for them, as required by law. On her group’s wish list, she said, would be a co-taught class on each grade level, with a full-time special education teacher and a full-time regular teacher.
Several residents called for a closer look at whether students attending out-of-district schools could find comparable services in the Montclair schools, if the appropriate specialists and facilities were available. This could save on transportation and tuition costs, which aren’t limited by the 2 percent spending cap.
June Raegner, who attends school board meetings regularly, would like to see the district implement the recommendations of the 2015 Achievement Gap Advisory Panel.
“It’s really upsetting that everyone keeps saying what they want, everyone wants equity, but only after they get what they want for their own kid: ‘Can we get couple more physics tutors for my kid taking the AP test next week?’”
In a later email, she wrote, “Unfortunately, the pattern in which the mayor, most of the town council and the current long-time members of Montclair’s Board of Education have followed does not make me feel confident a [superintendent who prioritizes equity] would get the needed support. This should be an important consideration given the upcoming election.”
Several parents who attended the forum at the district office want to see more staff members of color and were frustrated that the district’s staff does not reflect the student body, which is 49 percent students of color. Raegner said at the central office forum that she would like to see job vacancies posted far earlier than June, to increase the district’s chances of attracting new and diverse teachers, and noted that interim Superintendent Nathan Parker had committed to seeking commitments by February or March from teachers contemplating retirement.
Petal Robertson, president of the Montclair Education Association, the union representing more than 1,000 teachers, paraprofessionals, nurses, secretaries, security officers, and custodians, said her wish list included greater equity, a superintendent who is already practicing or willing to learn more about restorative practices, and one who values diversity, creativity, and the rich history of Montclair’s schools.
Masiel Rodriquez-Vars, the executive director of the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence, said there aren’t many communities that are racially and socioeconomically diverse in this country.
“To be able to have a school system serving all kids really well, that’s our goal. I want us to be visionaries, to be innovators in the educational space,” she said. “That is what I would want us to keep working on.” To that end, she hopes the fund could leverage the town’s creative people and resources in a way that would be helpful to the students and superintendent, on the scale of the Writers Room program years ago.
Gayl Shepard, the restorative justice coordinator for the district, would like to see the practice, which uses strong relationships as a basis for resolving conflict and disciplinary problems, become a hallmark of the district. Working with so many superintendents and interims has left staff reeling, feeling as if they’d survived that many breakups, she said. That’s one reason it is crucial for a new superintendent to be aligned with restorative practices. She noted that suspensions in the high school have decreased month over month since September, with the help of restorative justice work.
Her colleague, Syreeta Carrington, a social studies teacher at Glenfield who works on special assignment for restorative justice, noted that students have started to come to parent-teacher conferences, an aspect of restorative justice that has worked well. She believes the wider community could benefit from the practice, especially as school board meetings have become more heated — the upheaval in district leadership, she said, has left people upset and feeling as if they were not being heard.
Carrington also wants to see teachers have a greater say in the kind of professional development they receive. “Very rarely are teachers consulted in what would make your practice better, to continuously hone your craft,” she said.
Kellia Sweatt, of the National Independent Black Parent Association, which also has had chapters in South Los Angeles, South Carolina, and Pittsburgh, spoke at the Bullock School forum about the need for a student equity advocate, more African-American teachers and administrators, and protections for vulnerable and oppressed students.
“We have communities within communities, and some of them are minorities of minorities,” she said, adding that the district needs after-school programs to address the needs of the whole child.
Debbie Villarreal-Hadley, president of the Council of Montclair PTAs, hopes for a communicative district leader “who has readily available, new ideas to solve problems, because there’ve been so many ‘tried and true’ solutions that really don’t work.”
Lack of communication has caused many unnecessary problems, and parents have requested a district communications person, but no one was hired. One superintendent had a list of local trusted writers who could be contacted if a school-related incident needed to be handled quickly and delicately, and Villarreal-Hadley likes that idea.
In summation, school board President Eve Robinson urged residents to keep their eyes on past and future visions of the town’s schools: “Everybody in town needs to keep a piece of time in their mind, and remember where Montclair was, and is, and what we meant to the state of New Jersey around educational integration and desegregation,” she said. “Those roots go way back, and we want a candidate who will honor that memory while creating a 21st century school system.”