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Structural issues, including the availability of affordable housing and the wealth gap, play a key role in Montclair schools’ achievement gap, experts say.

Editors’ note: The original version of this article, published on June 14, omitted references to protests in Montclair against interim superintendent Dr. Nathan Parker. That information has been added to this version and appears below in italic type. Montclair Local regrets omitting this essential context. We are committed to covering racism in our town and to improve the way we do it.

by TINA KELLEY
for Montclair Local

A close study of the discrepancies in student success rates by race in the Montclair Public Schools leads directly to a deeper exploration of the challenges students of color face outside the classroom. What factors put them at risk for underachievement in school? How do racial disparities happen, and what can be done to address structural racism?

If the biases of every authority figure children interact with in school could be reduced — as the district was attempting in its districtwide Undoing Racism training for all school staff in 2015 — inequities would still remain because of structural racism: the policies and prejudices of institutions like schools, police departments, zoning boards, local governments, and, more broadly, the shape of the job, healthcare and real estate markets.

The state’s wealth gap by race is one of the nation’s largest, according to a 2019 New Jersey Institute for Social Justice report on median net worth, which indicates the value of assets held by households minus their  liabilities. The group found that while white families have a median net worth of more than $309,000, Latino families’ median is $7,020, and black families’ is $5,900.

David Troutt, a member of the 2015 panel that studied Montclair’s achievement gap, said even if individuals try to root out their own prejudicial beliefs, that still leaves the problem of structural racism. “If we leave relatively untouched the stain of those beliefs on our institutions, we’re simply bound to replicate prejudicial outcomes,” Troutt said.

If anyone doubted that inequality was a serious local problem, current events in the past month would persuade them otherwise. The COVID-19 pandemic has sickened and killed black New Jersey residents at nearly twice the rate of white residents. At the same time, police brutality against people of color took center stage with the filmed killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, which spurred  local and national protests.

“If you wonder why your kid is doing so well at 11th and 12th grades in Montclair High School, and her classmates whom she’s known since kindergarten have long ago fallen by the wayside, ask about her grandmothers and their grandmothers with regard to coronavirus,” said Troutt, the founding director of the Rutgers Center on Law, Inequality and Metropolitan Equity. “We all live in the same region. Ask about who’s suffered losses, who’s gotten sick or lost jobs, whose health, which was already imperiled, was made much, much worse, and you begin to get your answer about how deadly structural racism can be.”

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READ: ‘Opportunity gap’ in Montclair schools persists, five years after report

READ: Affordable housing demand outpacing supply in Montclair, a town known for providing

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Troutt said that the biggest predictor of a child’s success in school is the educational attainment of his or her parents.

Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, a social psychiatrist and professor at the New School, has studied urban education and found that many factors are required for people of lower socioeconomic status to get a good education. Like bulbs on an old-fashioned string of Christmas lights, Fullilove said, each factor has to be solidly in place for the lights to go on — employment at a living wage, affordable housing, safe streets, health insurance, access to health care, decent schools, and stable school enrollment patterns.

“Certainly since the 1980s there’s been a concentration of wealth that has stripped assets from individuals and families, and also from communities,” said Fullilove, who lives in West Orange. “It’s been concentrated in a handful of people and cities, and the rest have been left to fend for themselves.”

She advocates focusing on structural inequality, rather than structural racism, as so many forms of inequality affect so many people.

“People need to know their own story, and their own story of their own place, in ways that don’t start with accusation,” she said. “If you say there is racism, people think it’s an accusation. Instead, if you say there is racism in our society and how does that play out here,” more productive discussions occur.

Fullilove helped found the 400 Years of Inequality project to encourage communities to explore their history and to mark the four centuries since enslaved Africans first arrived in the Jamestown colony, Virginia. The project chose to use the word “inequality” in its name, rather than racism, because dualistic conversations — black people against everyone else — get stuck, she said.

“The ideology that justified slavery was an ideology of inequality, and it lands on everybody — wealth inequality, inequality based on class, race, sexual orientation, religion,” she said. “There are a lot of inequalities, not just two, and that opens people’s minds.”

AFFORDABLE HOUSING

According to the census, 7.6 percent of Montclair residents live in poverty.

Increasingly, poorer families and families of color have been priced out of the housing market, which is considered very competitive — the average township home sells for $621,000, and two-bedroom apartments start at $1,350 a month, according to Zillow. Of the township’s 14,000 housing units, 40 percent are rentals.

To qualify as affordable, housing should cost no more than 30 percent of a household’s income; census figures show almost 40 percent of Montclair residents pay more than that, and some rents are climbing 35 percent a year. The Township Council passed a rent-control ordinance in April, but property owners have challenged it in court and are petitioning for a referendum on the issue in November.

Montclair has a total of 785 units of affordable housing, more than a third of them reserved for seniors. The waiting list for the units includes 9,600 households; 828 of them are township employees or residents.

The township’s inclusionary zoning ordinance requires developers of larger projects to make 10 percent to 20 percent of the units affordable, which has led to the creation of more than 125 units. Projects that fall outside the inclusionary zoning plan must pay into the township’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, Planning Department Director Janice Talley said in an email. The fund now stands at $929,000 and supports projects built by HOMECorp, the Essex Community Land Trust, or other nonprofits.

With affordable housing scarce, an increasing number of black families have left Montclair for more affordable towns in recent years. Albert Pelham, president of the Montclair NAACP, watched the township lose 18 percent of its black population from 2000 to 2010, and another 3 percent in the following eight years.

Pelham believes that structural racism runs deep in American society, and that it takes openness and honesty to acknowledge that. But addressing the problem is possible, he said: “If we get together as a community and truly think about all kids having the opportunity to succeed, counting all the resources in Montclair, there’s no reason why it can’t happen.”

But, he said,  the township’s future depends on affordable housing.

“If we don’t get the rent-control ordinance … then the diversity of this town, which was dwindling anyway, will go all the way down,” Pelham said. “It will no longer be Montclair. It will be like Montclair, but with just the haves, whether black or white.”

William Scott, co-chairperson of the Montclair Housing Commission, said zoning rules may be the next big issue related to housing. Scott sees a need to place housing for elderly and disabled residents in all neighborhoods, and areas zoned for mansions should not be exempt. Meeting the need for seniors to stay in town after downsizing from homes to apartments would free up needed units.

Scott, who also chairs the Montclair NAACP Housing Committee, said opening mother-in-law units, smaller mother-daughter homes, auxiliary dwelling units, and carriage houses as income-producing properties, currently not allowed, could increase the inventory of affordable rentals.

“The pandemic will force a lot of change in the township, in housing, law enforcement, and health,” he said. “We have tremendous challenges ahead of us.”

IN THE SCHOOLS

Outgoing interim superintendent Nathan Parker said his work as superintendent in Orange, a majority minority district with 80 percent low-income students,  taught him the importance of raising aspirations district-wide, so everyone believed — and acted on the belief — that Orange students had just as good a chance to succeed as high-income white students. When he found out that only a few high school seniors there had taken SATs and PSATs, because no one had encouraged them to, he arranged for all students to take both tests without cost to them.

Parker also changed the practice of pulling children out of regular classes for remedial help, and instead focused on instructional coaches, using the most effective math and language arts teachers to help all teachers make their instruction more engaging, rigorous, and aligned with the curriculum. Fourth-graders went from 38 percent proficiency rates, the current level of black students in Montclair, to 87 percent, exceeding the rates of white students in Montclair. Raising the aspirations of the schools required engagement from employees, parents, and students.

A hurdle to overcome, both in Orange and Montclair, he said, is the mindset of people who don’t question an ineffective status quo. “If you accept that mindset, you don’t do what has to be done to cause lower-income students of color in Montclair to achieve at the same level as wealthy white kids,” he said, noting that achievement for both groups had been flat in town for five years.

Dr. Parker came under fire from parents and other members of the community over remarks he made last fall at a meeting of the local NAACP chapter about teachers’ attitudes toward race. After some residents, at a series of public meetings, demanded his resignation over the remarks, the Board of Education called for a police presence at its Feb. 19 meeting, which intimidated black parents. 

The board released its response to Dr. Parker’s comments and the ensuing criticism at the end of February. The response said the board had taken unspecified internal action, and that it stood by Parker’s public defense of what he said. All of these events served as further indications that racism is inherent to the structure of the schools.

Elise C. Boddie, director of The Inclusion Project at Rutgers Law School and a Montclair resident, worries that low-income families in town are ignored by the schools. “We need structures and policies across our schools that center their experiences in and outside the classroom,” she said in an email.

For example, Boddie said, are PTAs welcoming to those families, and do they meet at times and places that allow for the most families to participate? Why are families asked to sign in at back-to-school night — how is that information used?  Do teachers make assumptions about parents/guardians/caregivers who are unable to attend evening events that then feed into their perceptions of the child in the classroom? Are those unable to attend able to get the necessary information?

Kellia Sweatt, president of the Montclair chapter of the National Independent Black Parent Association and founder of Parents Protecting All Afrikan Children, said the diversity of towns like Montclair creates an optical illusion.

“It confuses folks into thinking there’s also harmony and unity, because we all know how to sit in a room together, but the fact of the matter is we don’t have the same level of access,” she said. “We’re the only group of parents I’ve ever seen be treated so disrespectfully and hostilely as we’ve been treated.

“If we care about all people, we have to go to the ones that are hurting the most, first. Our first goal was to put real protective factors around children.” She also criticized the district for not fully supporting the office of student equity advocate.

Fullilove said that to understand how structural inequality in schools puts children of color at risk of failure, it’s necessary to hear how often during their school days young people experience microaggressions — relatively small acts of racism that add up.

Shayla George, 18, the president of the Black Student Union at Montclair High School, was asked during the recent “Community Conversation on Racial Injustice” Zoom call to describe instances of racism she had experienced in school. Often, George said, when she was asked to talk about racism, a teacher or advisor would tell her to be mindful of the feelings of her allies, which she considered “a way to police black anger and black rage” to make sure the feelings of people traumatized by the system came second to the feelings of people who were not affected by it.

During the Zoom call several teachers said that too often, only  black teaching staff are asked to handle the behavioral or educational problems of black students, although teachers of any race should be able to do so.

“We can’t talk about transforming a district until we restore and repair the harms that have been done for years,” said Gayl Shepard, Restorative Justice coordinator for the Montclair Public Schools. “We can’t do it by starting with the students. They’re the least likely culprits, but the safest place to point.” Restorative practices like building relationships within a school, so staff could understand each other and the students better, would work far better than telling black staff to “fix a problem,” she said.

George agreed that students should not be the focus of blame. Teachers too often touch her hair without asking, correct pronunciations unnecessarily, in front of peers, and shy away from conversations about race as unrelated to coursework, yet happily talk about baseball, she said. Some would speak to her condescendingly. White people, she said, have a very serious problem with bias, and need to educate themselves instead of asking black people to explain it to them.

Sometimes the aggressions are larger. Joanne Ashe, who has taught in the district for 10 years, remembers when a staff member told students that black people had smaller brains. A  black support teacher refuted that.

“A child cannot learn from someone who doesn’t like them, who despises them,” Ashe said, paraphrasing the writer James Baldwin. “Children have the olfactory skills of a bloodhound and can smell when [teachers] don’t like them.”

She said while many teachers of all races genuinely care for all their students, some continue to deny the existence of bias.

“There are some who dismiss racism,” Ashe said, “therefore choosing not to understand how their teachings and feelings negatively affect their students of color and deny their white students the benefit of the truth.”

ADDRESSING THE WEALTH GAP

Troutt believes many residents truly want better schools that help every student succeed, and integration has worked better here than in many other towns. But the district’s children of color still struggle with historically higher suspension rates, more placements in special education classes, lower enrollment in Advanced Placement classes, and a fall-off in proficiency starting as early as third grade.

The goal should be to prove that educational inequity “is not simply a feature of American life, and this is something we truly can overcome,” he said. “We need stable, really smart leadership that is willing to take some big risks for some big rewards.” And this work will have to be done while educators struggle with online teaching, the eventual need for social distancing in classrooms, even tighter budgets, and other ramifications of coronavirus.

Ashe said the pandemic has highlighted the wealth gap in town, where 16 percent of the district’s students qualify for free and reduced lunch, a figure the district does not break down by race. Poorer  students are having a harder time accessing remote learning due to lack of devices, connectivity, and quiet places to log in, she said, and she praised LaptopUpcycle, a local organization providing computers and hotspots to students in need.

“It saddens me,” she added in a text, “that it has ONLY been students of color for whom I’ve had to obtain these services, which indicates that there are a plethora of black and brown students who do not have access to the information highway, which means they are at a severe disadvantage when it comes distance learning.”

For her part, Fullilove sees an opportunity for progress in the aftermath of COVID-19.

“We’ve never had such a demonstration of inequality as we’re having now with the pandemic,” she said. “I think people learn things at such moments. They may not even be aware that they’re learning it.” She drew parallels to the AIDS epidemic, when many people said hateful things about gay people “deserving” the scourge.

“It was unimaginable at that moment that we would have gay marriage now, and part of the reason I think is that decent people were horrified,” she said. “They may not have known they were horrified, but it opened their minds in a way.”

Now headlines are asking why black people, Pacific Islanders and people in prisons have disproportionately high rates of coronavirus deaths.

“What does that say about society, and how would we like to move forward?” Fullilove said. “What kind of place do you want to create for your kids? Montclair is not an island.”

‘AMERICA TO ME’

To help more residents understand the challenges of providing an equitable public education to all students, the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence has been holding township-wide watch groups of the documentary series “America to Me,” which follows students in an integrated high school in a Chicago suburb much like Montclair. Groups have gathered online to discuss the series and explore their own complicity with bias and whiteness.

“When we talk about structural racism, we live in a very racist world, that is our reality, and the only way to chip away at that is to hold a mirror to ourselves and do that work,” said Masiel Rodriquez-Vars, who runs the fund.

The watch groups will culminate with a Zoom call this Sunday, June 14, featuring appearances by young people who also appeared in the show and a presentation by Dr. Bettina L. Love, author of “We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom.”

The book describes the “spirit-murder” that children of color experience in public schools. “They were structured for widgets, not to be spaces to nurture the full humanity of a being,” Rodriquez-Vars said, describing Love’s work. “You need to respect your kids and know who they are in their full humanity, and really understand all the gifts and the challenges they bring into that space.”

Free tickets for the “America to Me” Zoom call, on Sunday from 2:30 to 5 p.m., are available on the MFEE website.