Maplewood Schools / Kids South Orange Towns

Will ‘Access & Equity’ Policy Move S.O./Maplewood Schools ‘from Good to Great’?

Editor’s note, 10/5: a quote about how it isn’t enough to simply open access, but the district must ensure the curriculum prepares all to be successful in higher-level classes was made by Beth Daugherty, not by Madhu Pai. A correction has been made.

In what its president terms a “seismic change” in the district, the South Orange – Maplewood Board of Education recently introduced a new educational policy entitled “Access & Equity,” which proposes to introduce choice and open access to all classes and levels for all students throughout the district.

The policy (5755.1), which met with unanimous and overwhelming enthusiasm from board members at its September meeting, would give K-12 grade students and their parents/guardians “the ability to choose between current and future educational programs in all academic subjects, and at all academic levels.” The BOE will vote on the policy at its October 19 meeting. (See the full policy at the end of this article).

“This is a very big thing for our district,” said BOE President Wayne Eastman in a phone interview. “This is a seismic change in philosophy. We’ve never had anything like this before.”

Board member and former president Beth Daugherty said the policy expands on Policy 5755 (Equity in Education Programs and Services), which focuses on equal and barrier-free access for students, but uses stronger and more specific language about choice.

“This commitment to prepare ALL students with these fundamental skills and knowledge is a powerful statement,” said Daugherty in an email.

Board 1st Vice President Madhu Pai said in an email the policy — which she called an “amazing achievement” — was the result of many years of work. The language was crafted to ensure the district is “enforcing a level of rigor throughout our curriculum and teaching that will better prepare all students to be able to take on higher level classes when they are offered.”

The Village Green posed several questions to Eastman, Pai and Daugherty, as well as to new Superintendent Dr. John Ramos, Sr., regarding details of the policy:

What was the genesis of the policy? Did it come into sharper focus when Dr. Ramos came on board?

The Board has been working to increase participation in higher level classes for many years, said Daugherty, with such initiatives as summer step-up programs, leveling-up at the middle schools, the FAST program and MAC Scholars at CHS, summer classes for first time AP participants, and more.

However, that approach has not succeeded at addressing academic disparities, she said.

“The mindset that not all students can do the work that is necessary to be on a trajectory and be prepared to take advanced level classes in high school is still pervasive throughout the District,” said Daugherty.

Pai said she believed that, while the administration often is correct in its recommendations of where students are placed, parents and students should have more choices rather than being “slotted in” where the district feels they are best suited.

“If a child is motivated enough (and realistically capable) to do the work for a class with more rigor, then nobody should be in their way,” said Pai.

When Eastman became president, he wanted to make such a policy a priority. Dr. Ramos’ arrival, as well as the OCR Resolution agreement, moved the issue to the forefront of the board’s agenda. Eastman said Ramos was a “catalyst” who brought a “breath of fresh air” to the discussion.

Eastman drafted the initial policy; Jeff Bennett, who chairs the Equity and Excellence committee, revised it with input from other committee members. At the request of some board members Ramos and in-house counsel Phil Stern looked at similar policies in other districts to make the policy more comprehensive.

What does “choice” entail? Would it mean a wholesale opening up of all classes to all students regardless of any specific criteria other than their (and their parents’) desire to participate? Would there be a contract, for instance, that student and parents sign that spells out expectations for students? Is there the ability to move back and forth between levels throughout a school year?

“Open access means just that. Open,” said Ramos.

Pai said while she supports open access in theory, “I’m also aware that not all students have been prepared to be ready for the rigors of Honors or AP classes.” The policy language is intended to employ “a level of rigor” throughout the curriculum to prepare students for higher level classes.

“I do not believe that we’ll be doing right by any student by pushing them into a class they are unprepared for; the loss of confidence can have far reaching negative consequences,” said Pai. “We want this policy to promote a love of learning, not a fear of not achieving.”

There will be no contracts for students; however, “there does need to be mutual understanding and alignment among [students, parents and the district] regarding having clear expectations of what these higher courses deliver, and clearly spelling out what is expected from the student to be able to participate and succeed.”

Students will be able to move between levels, as they currently are permitted to, said Ramos.

In terms of the academic supports, can you give any specific examples beyond what is in the policy? What kind of tutoring and programs might there be, and would these be new programs or ones that are already in place?

The board members all said the specifics of the supports had yet to be worked out.

“Right now, the focus is on the policy itself and on the spirit of access,” said Ramos. “If the policy is approved, we will need to determine the specifics of how it will work, and what will be viable for this district. This work will be part of our strategic planning process, as we identify the district’s priorities, create action plans, assess what is required to implement the plans, and align everything to the budget process.”

Pai Daugherty said it wasn’t enough to simply open access; the district needs to ensure that the curriculum prepares all to be successful in higher level courses.  This does not mean that all students should take all AP classes in high school, for instance, but that the district must prepare all students so the choice is theirs to make.

A key part of the policy is the mandate for the district to engage in a Kindergarten through 12th grade curricular alignment, “ensuring that all students develop the knowledge and skills fundamental to successful performance in Advanced Placement and advanced level courses by providing the highest levels of academic rigor” in all grades, said Daugherty.

Daugherty said she expected supports to be determined by the administration based on student need, but also sensitive to budgetary constraints.

What is the timeline? Would this be implemented in the 2016/17 school year?

It is the district’s goal to implement at least some of the changes called for in the policy for the 2016/17 school year.

How might this impact the budget, and has this already been looked at?

“While there are some budget implications, this is more about practice, and about the way that we deliver learning and teaching,” said Ramos. “It is more about mindset than it is about budget, and I believe that the majority of the professionals in this district are more than ready for it.” He added that the administration will incorporate the policy into the budget planning process and find ways to “free up funds” to be rededicated to the classroom.

“I am certain this will have implications on the budget,” said Pai. “We are just moving into budget development process, so this is the perfect time to be voting on this policy.”

Daugherty said the supports will be based on student need “but also sensitive to budgetary constraints.”

How will the district ensure implementation?  

“We have a spotty track record of implementation in this district,” said Pai. “While I have full confidence in Dr. Ramos, the Board needs to take accountability for successful implementation through how we govern and lead.”

“We will track and ensure implementation through the quality assurance process that is part of the strategic planning process,” said Ramos. This will include monthly reports to the board on how the administration is progressing with the overall strategic plan.

“Dr. Ramos is very enthusiastic about this policy and I believe he will think through all the details necessary to ensure a successful and meaningful implementation,” said Pai.

Meanwhile, the board members all seem highly optimistic — and immensely relieved — at the prospect of having such a policy in place in the district, which has struggled in recent years with changes in leadership, lawsuits, and vocal dissatisfaction among parents and teachers about curriculum, access and communication.

“I feel we in South Orange – Maplewood can really be leaders in this,” said Eastman, so that people in other school districts will look to South Orange – Maplewood as a model.

Pai said, “I see this policy, like the arrival of Dr. Ramos, as a new beginning for this district.  We are finally ready to go from good to great!”

Policy 5755.1, Access and Equity:

All elementary, middle school, and high school parents/guardians and children in the South Orange-Maplewood School District shall have access to, and the ability to choose between current and future educational programs in all academic subjects, and at all academic levels. In furtherance of this Policy, all students shall be provided with age-appropriate academic supports for access to advanced-level courses, which may include, by way of example only, readiness programs and courses, in-school and after-school tutoring, sessions, and summer institutes. The District shall also engage in a Kindergarten through 12th grade curricular alignment, ensuring that all students develop the knowledge and skills fundamental to successful performance in Advanced Placement and advanced level courses by providing the highest levels of academic rigor in Kindergarten, Elementary, Middle and High School courses. While this Policy does not guarantee success for student achievement, it nevertheless greatly empowers students, as it is informed by mutual accountability for educational success amongst students, parents and guardians, and the South Orange and Maplewood School District. The Superintendent is directed to establish regulations and to set budgetary guidelines to make this policy effective.

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