In debates and when I’m out canvassing, the question of how our district can close the achievement gap arises repeatedly. Indeed, the passion for bringing my twenty years of experience in education and equity to this issue is one of the main reasons I am running for South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education. Our district has struggled for the past decade with underfunding due to mismanagement from the state. As often happens, the people to experience the worst harm at times of scarcity are those who were already disadvantaged by the bias and racism that we must acknowledge is a constant in our society. That’s why the racial and socioeconomic achievement gap is one of the major problems we face right now. Due to gradually improving state management and an investment in education, we are now in a moment of opportunity to move our district forward.
Our choices about how to close the achievement gap and create welcoming, inclusive schools are critical. All of the BOE candidates have expressed a desire to close the achievement gap and create welcoming schools, but not all have the lifetime commitment and experience I bring to the table. I’m writing this article to share with our community the specific recommendations I will pursue if elected to the Board of Education. As an educator of over twenty years (in the classroom, as an administrator and as a policy consultant), I have the practical experience in crafting and implementing policies that can actually make a difference. I bring an informed, intersectional lens of equity and inclusion to our district’s mission of addressing inequality.
The Access and Equality policy, although well-intentioned and a good start, does not go far enough and has not met the district’s goal of ending the achievement gap. At the middle school and high school, students of color and other marginalized students are not adequately represented across the curricula or in higher level achievement classes. In the elementary schools, students of color and other marginalized students are still not getting the full support they need to achieve at all levels.
We need to ask ourselves: “What actions ensure all students get the opportunities and support they need to succeed?” Closing the achievement gap will only happen if we take a proactive approach–starting with creating a climate and culture that is supportive, inclusive, welcoming and affirming for all students. Equity and inclusion provide the groundwork for the development of a positive climate and culture for all students to thrive and learn. We need to recognize students’ diverse needs and embrace whole-child, student-centered learning that is supportive of students of color, LGBTQ students, special needs students, immigrant students and other vulnerable populations.
The highest priority areas that I want to address are:
the realignment of K-12 to close educational gaps
hiring more teachers, leaders and support staff of color and various identities
ensuring that all physical spaces and a rigorous curriculum reflect the diversity of our student body
continued support and professional development of staff, focusing on anti-bias and restorative justice training, as well as differentiated instruction
adding support systems for all students
Climate & Culture
We must address and dismantle inequality in all of its forms – racial, gender, social-economic, ability and other — to truly create a equitable climate and culture for all students to thrive inside and outside of the classroom. An equitable climate and culture is positive for all students, whether or not they identify with a marginalized group. The same climate and culture that supports marginalized students is the most healthy climate and culture for all, one which helps prepare all students for our diverse society and world.
Policies alone do not create that climate and culture — actions do. We must continually be on the pulse of best practices, research and policy on a state and national level. We need professional development and training to support adults: specifically, robust anti-bias training and restorative justice. Classrooms and school communities should be mirrors of our diverse students and families —from the classroom walls, to the curriculum, to the books they read, to interactions at lunchroom tables, to the teachers and support staff they interact with, across the district and in all aspects. Equitable practices are not just something in the abstract, but something actually practiced, seamlessly, in the delivery of education and in the very fiber of the district. Until we establish this climate and culture we will continue to nibble around the edges and fail our students. The overall culture and climate needs to begin with leadership. That leadership needs to come from the board and the next superintendent.
All of this work on equity, inclusion and innovation needs to take place in the context of integration. The old integration plan for SOMSD (based on districting, pairing, and a demonstration school) needs to be changed to address new residential patterns and changing demographics. I am for a controlled choice system: parents rank their choice of three schools and are assigned to one of the schools based on demographic balance. This system would remove the structural inequality of school placement being connected to housing patterns, and bring our community together as equals within the school system. Integration also means much more than just moving bodies around. It involves investing in robust curriculum and continuous training for all staff, including support staff. In addition, SOMSD has a crumbling Infrastructure that is a direct health and safety issue for all students. This is a priority safety issue that we must address now as we are concurrently working on integration.
A Safe, Supportive School Environment
Dismantling segregation and addressing inequality are also priority health and safety issues. Students who do not feel safe and welcomed in their school, especially marginalized students, have higher rates of school absence and truancy, decreased academic achievement and are more likely to drop out. Safe and supportive school environments have a positive impact on school outcomes for all students.
Research has shown that youth of color, especially young girls of color, face disproportionately higher rates of school discipline and school push out. Youth of color often experience not only harsher rates of school discipline overall but have higher rates of suspension vs. white students. A Black girl in NJ is 8.4 times more likely to be suspended than a white girl. We need to actively address and take proactive critical steps to address the disproportionate numbers of youth of color and marginalized youth who experience suspensions and expulsions, and the disproportionate number of students of color placed in special education. I believe in the value of a restorative justice philosophy in our school community.
Creating a safe, supportive environment for learning also means making social emotional learning and support systems a priority. This includes crisis prevention teams and planning for mental health and wellness, social emotional development, trauma informed care and access to guidance counselors and social workers. To engage all students equally in the learning process and guarantee their safety, educators must recognize their own biases and move beyond them. Everyone has biases: influences from home, school, community, culture, peer groups and networks that helped form attitudes and behaviors about others. We must all learn to overcome these biases, and anti-bias training can help.
School resource officers can create a false sense of safety in a school setting. We all want our schools to be safe for all students without threats from violence. While school districts most often have the best intentions when implementing school resource officers, the reality is that the impact they can have on the everyday lives of students and a school community is in stark contrast to the intentions. School safety officers often have little to no training in how to respond and interact with youth, especially students with special needs. Research has shown that school resource officers often use zero tolerance when engaging with youth, even during minor disciplinary infractions, and contribute to school push out and the school-to-prison pipeline. Research has also shown that school safety and the overall school climate and culture play a significant role not only in equity, but also the success of a student. If a school resource officer or designee safety personnel is not aligned with the best practices in youth crisis prevention (including restorative justice practices, de-escalation, school emergency management, special needs populations, diversity and inclusion) and are not aligned with the climate and culture the district is striving to achieve, there is a higher chance of their presence in schools undermining our goals.
My decades of experience in education have taught me that an equitable, inclusive school climate and culture is the greatest contributor to well-being, excellence and achievement for all students. I am running for the BOE so I can bring my policy expertise and knowledge to our district to implement the practical, on-the-ground practices we need now to truly invest and create a welcoming, affirming, inclusive climate and culture for all students and families . It’s the way we’ll move forward, together.