Principal Jeff Freeman, seen here in 2019, says Montclair High Sghool’s CGI program won’t change “in any way that detracts from its long-held academic standards and rigor.” (FILE PHOTO BY KATE ALBRIGHT)

By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
hochman@montclairlocal.news

Montclair High School’s Civics and Government Institute isn’t canceled, the school’s principal told parents in a letter late Tuesday, Feb. 16.

That message from Principal Jeffrey A. Freeman clarifies another he sent a few days earlier — at 9 p.m. Friday, Feb. 12, heading into the three-day Presidents Day weekend — titled the “Reformation of CGI.” The first note said Montclair High School had started the “work of reimagining and rebranding this [small learning community] in order to meet the ever-changing landscape of MHS.” Freeman’s first message said the school would revise the program’s mission, goals and curriculum, and that it would launch with a new name and direction in September.

Kenneth Dowell, whose son is a junior in the program, told Montclair Local he was caught off-guard by the initial letter, which also set off confused threads in Montclair-focused Facebook groups by parents unsure what that meant for the popular civics program. He said he hadn’t been told of any plans to rework CGI before then.

He called the late-night notice before a holiday weekend a “communications failure.”

“Some people have interpreted the letter as they’re going to eliminate it,” Dowell said. “But that’s probably a rush to judgment, too.”

Freeman in his Tuesday note said CGI isn’t canceled “nor will its scope and design be changed in any way that detracts from its long held academic standards and rigor.”

“Students currently in CGI will remain with their cohorts, and rising sophomores will continue to have the opportunity to select CGI as a program choice,” he wrote. The new letter didn’t make any reference to a new name.

Freeman’s clarification follows a brief note from Superintendent Jonathan Ponds to Montclair Local over the weekend, after the newspaper asked for more details on the reimagining process. Ponds told Montclair Local he’d meet with the school administration Tuesday and then communicate with parents. He responded to a follow-up email saying the program is “not canceled.”

Freeman’s first letter also said there would be a “shift in the teaching staff,” but didn’t clarify what that meant for teachers’ employment. That isn’t addressed in his follow-up.

His newer letter said in the coming months, Montclair High School would reassess all of its small learning communities, with feedback from community members, parents, students and administrators. 

“We recognize [the communities’] value and importance and most definitely wish to maintain their place in our offerings,” he wrote.

The Montclair Education Association, the union that represents teachers and some other district staff, said it learned about the changes to CGI from Montclair Local’s online reporting, and didn’t have any further comment. 

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, U.S. History, and British and American Literature.” The program continues through their senior year.

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.”

Freeman’s letters didn’t specifically say whether the diversity concern was among those the reimagining would look to address. But he said in the Tuesday letter he was seeking feedback from the whole community “in an effort to foster inclusivity and equity for all.”

Dowell 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.”

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.