By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
Montclair public schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds says he hasn’t cancelled the district’s Civics and Government Institute — despite what a letter from Principal Jeffrey A. Freeman sent late Friday night could seem to suggest.
In the letter — titled “The Reformation of CGI” and sent to parents by email at 9 p.m. Friday, heading into the three-day Presidents Day weekend — Freeman said the school has “begun the work of reimagining and rebranding this [Small Learning Community] in order to meet the ever-changing landscape of MHS.”
He said a core group of educators “within the body” are starting the work to revise the program’s mission, goals and curriculum, and that it would launch with a new name and direction in September.
Freeman’s letter also said there would be a “shift in the teaching staff.” His letter expressed gratitude for the teachers who’ve taken part in the program, but didn’t clarify whether that meant any teachers would be dismissed from the program or what that might mean for their employment.
Freeman’s letter didn’t say what new goals a replacement for CGI would set out. It also didn’t say whether or when the broader school community might become involved with the planning.
Ponds told Montclair Local by email Saturday he would meet with the high school administration on Tuesday, and then communicate with families further.
“I have not authorized cancelling CGI,” Ponds wrote. “It is an important program in our community. Have a great weekend.”
Freeman and faculty members listed as lead teachers for the program on the district website haven’t yet responded to an email message sent over the holiday weekend seeking clarification. The Montclair Education Association, the union that represents teachers and some other district staff, hasn’t yet responded to a message asking what it may know about any anticipated program and staffing changes.
The nearly quarter century-old CGI program is one of multiple small learning communities within Montclair High School. Participating students spend three periods a day in associated classes. The district’s site says students who join in their sophomore years “participate in student-run government, debates, elective courses, international relations, community service partnerships, US History, and British and American Literature.” The program continues through their senior years.
The district says the students have opportunities to develop leadership skills for their time at MHS and beyond.
The program has often been lauded for involving students in civics, but also faced criticism from community members who say its student population isn’t diverse enough. Last year, in a letter to Montclair Local, a group of students including CGI’s then-president and then-vice president said they’d seen that lack of diversity, but were also working to combat it.
“As a minority, Ali [Khawaja, one of the letter’s four writers] was told that he shouldn’t join CGI as it is only for white kids. This is the exact behavior that has kept CGI predominantly white. Recently, we have taken multiple initiatives to help diversify CGI through outreach programs in order to rehabilitate our image in the Montclair community,” the group wrote.
The students — Khawaja, Keira Hasan, Jacob Schmeltz and Aidan Ward — said CGI has worked “toward balancing the color spectrum of the students within”
“In recent years, the institute has worked on both political and social activism through a (primarily) political lens. To call the institute racist, however, is to call Gandhi a bigot. As students, our administrators and faculty guide us towards becoming more politically literate and use this literacy to help us enact change on both a local and national level.”
It wasn’t clear from Freeman’s letter to parents whether the diversity concern was among those he expected to be addressed with a reimagining of the program.
Kenneth Dowell, whose son is a junior in the program, told Montclair Local he was caught off-guard by the letter. He said he hadn’t heard anything from the school prior to that about work to reform CGI.
He said he didn’t have an objection to reworking or improving the program, but “there is no real information in there about what they’re going to do.”
And he said CGI’s civics lessons have been particularly valuable in a year with significant social upheaval.
“Civics and government is an important thing to be teaching given what’s gone on in the country,” Dowell said.
He said he considered the concern about diversity one worth addressing, and “I would hope that they have a plan — to continue and expand CGI, and address the legitimate concern.”
“Some people have interpreted the letter as they’re going to eliminate it,” Dowell said. “But that’s probably a rush to judgment, too. It’s really a communications failure.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this post referenced a statement in the letter by CGI students that the program previously had a GPA requirement. Two teachers with the Montclair School District, including one previously assigned to the program, have told Montclair Local no such requirement existed.