Five community members are running for three seats on the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education this year.
The candidates are: Regina Eckert, Nubia Wilson, Bill Gifford, Ritu Pancholy and William Meyer.
Eckert, Wilson and Gifford are running on the “Students Come First” ticket. Pancholy and Meyer are running on the “Doing Better, Together” ticket.
As the Candidate Forums are taking place late in the election cycle (especially given early voting and vote-by-mail), Village Green put together four questions for candidates on different topics of interest in the South Orange-Maplewood School District. We know there can often be numerous questionnaires during the election cycle, but we hope these questions will provide voters with additional information on candidates, well before Election Day.
We asked each of the five candidates to respond individually to each question. We asked them to limit each answer to 500 words or less. We are publishing each response in full and unedited.
Read candidates’ responses to the first question about busing and transportation here.
The second question is about access & equity.
ACCESS & EQUITY
“A Tale of Two Schools.”: A recent presentation at the BOE showed that more Black students failed fourth marking period classes at Columbia High School than did students from any other ethnic group, and data provided by school officials suggest that interventions in place are not providing enough support to reverse that direction. Do you support the current interventions? Would you tweak or supplement them in any way? Would you offer other solutions? See our coverage of the presentation here.
As the question aptly points out, Columbia High School (CHS) has long produced different outcomes for different students. The data presented at the August 2022 Board meeting in regards to Black students at CHS was alarming, but also not unforeseeable as previous NJ School Performance Reports have demonstrated that a disproportionate number of Black students have struggled at CHS. The Board, and the community should receive annual reports with this level of specificity from the administration because without this data we cannot assess our progress. We need to apply an intersectional lens to student outcomes, collecting similar data for other vulnerable groups at CHS, such as neurodivergent and special needs students. It is critical that we continue to ask for data to be segmented and presented in this manner.
I support innovative approaches in education because a modernized school district should be able to implement and test strategies for student growth as part of a continuous feedback loop that allows us to fine tune solutions. An example of this innovation was presented in August by Dr. Jane Bean-Folkes, the K-12 ELA Supervisor. Dr. Bean-Folkes presented the STAR Renaissance Reading data and the risk levels across demographics, and used that data to highlight the development of a freshman humanities pilot program.
The humanities cohort was created to support students with the goal of preparing students for higher level courses. The teachers were committed to the expectation that no student would fail. By creating a micro community within a big school, teachers were able to deepen their relationships with students and better support them as individuals. Student input into book selection, as well as the extra support available during free periods, were key aspects of the program. Research shows that student success is often dependent on the culture and climate in a school and when a student builds a strong and positive relationship with an adult in the school that relationship ultimately results in markedly improved outcomes for that student.
Early indicators suggest this pilot is working. If elected I would work with the Board to support the expansion of this type of pilot across the curriculum. The work of closing the gaps in student outcomes at CHS, is in part in the cultivation of culture and programs where students are uniquely seen and individually supported and teachers are supported with the pedagogical training they need to support a diverse student population to thrive.
The pass/fail data from Columbia High School that was disclosed by the district in August was alarming and unacceptable. This trend has been in place for decades, as a review of years of NJ School Performance Reports (https://rc.doe.state.nj.us/2020-2021/school/detail/13/4900/030/overview) will confirm. The data also surely reflected the severe educational trauma that our students, especially the historically underserved, faced as a result of Covid. And we cannot forget the many heartbreaking student stories shared just two years ago by the Black at SOMSD project. (https://www.instagram.com/blackatsomsd/)
It is abundantly clear that much more needs to be done to break us out of these entrenched patterns of low expectations and disparate academic outcomes for our Black students.
One glimmer of hope is the fact that this presentation of specific data from CHS came at the request of the BOE. This is an example of the kind of supervision of the superintendent and district that is most necessary: precise requests for data, which prompt transparency and responsive solutions. As we target the education debt among Black students, regular reporting on statistics will be essential to monitor progress.
The district has put numerous academic interventions in place to support at-risk CHS students, including Cougar Academy, SLAM Lab, a trial of honors humanities cohorts for at-risk 9th graders, after school interventions, and tutoring services (in addition to the supports available through special education and I&RS).
Several of these interventions have been introduced just in the past few years and their rollouts were impacted by the pandemic. We need to encourage and foster innovation in our schools and, importantly, give these programs the resources needed to prove themselves, including through adequate teacher staffing. One of the greatest tools we have to foster student success is the forging of meaningful connections between a student and a teacher they know has their back. The ability to create small class groupings for increased intensive academic supports during the school day will facilitate these connections and ensure the level of attention necessary to nurture academic success.
Just as important as academic interventions are continued efforts to support our Black students’ emotional wellbeing. This includes having adequate and culturally-competent counseling services available and looking at innovative ways to merge this social-emotional support with academics during the school day, rather than structuring it as a separate entity, which can be stigmatizing and reduce engagement.
Finally, while it is imperative to address the critical needs of students in CHS right now, we must also be preparing younger cohorts of Black students for success at CHS by improving their experience in lower grades. The lopsided demographic disparities that persist in the elementary and middle schools likely contribute to the strained and inequitable outcomes we see at CHS now. We must ensure the Intentional Integration Initiative continues forward and is successful in its goal of creating inclusive classrooms and strong student expectations in all our schools.
I’ve heard that the “Tale of Two Schools” has existed for a while now but it was pretty sobering to see the presentation during the August 25th BOE meeting. Across all cohorts, outcomes have declined – but the impact has been especially harmful to Black and Hispanic students. It’s unclear when interventions start for a student and I wonder if we’re not catching it early enough? Are we engaging with the teachers and staff to get their input and ideas around potential solutions? They are on the front lines with our students and I imagine would have valuable feedback to share.
What is clear to me is that the current interventions are not working and I’m not seeing the Superintendent putting forth solutions and a budget in place to reverse the direction. It’s very concerning to me that we’ve had 3 different Asst. Superintendents of Curriculum and Instruction in the short time that my 2nd grader has been in elementary school.
It’s also evident that we’re not paying enough attention at the K-5 level when we continually see the issues at the high school level persist. Logic will tell you that the gap increases as time goes on and I’m not seeing enough curricular attention given to the earliest years. While this isn’t necessarily relevant when discussing the above CHS outcomes, it certainly plays a role in the larger conversations around integration and the missing supports to ensure its success.
It is great that the District is tracking Pass/Fail rates for Columbia High School students to track the achievement gap, but I was disappointed that the presentation lacked a sense of urgency to address this issue before students enter high school. We need to receive more feedback from the students and teachers. For example, one of the interventions is 9th period teacher conference hour, which is not mandatory for those who are failing. How many students are actually attending regularly? Some students go and some do not. Do students who attend find them helpful? Are they getting enough 1:1 attention in 9th period? If they are skipping them, why? Do students feel their individual needs and learning styles are not being supported? If we do not have these answers for the solutions we are providing, then we need to dig deeper into the problem by asking students for their feedback. From there, we can develop a more personalized intervention plan that meets the unique needs of the student, which will then offer a roadmap for students to follow and teachers to support. We also believe vocational and technical education and training should be brought back to Columbia.
We pulled out the Pass/Fail data on our website, so that people could conveniently see that Hispanic and Mixed Race students had some high fail rates, as well. The data also failed to pull out which students have IEPs, which should be mandatory to include, so that we can track their progress in high school, as well.
Unfortunately, “A Tale of Two Schools” has been a reality in our district for many years. In my time at Columbia, a rigid tracking system was literally segregating the school with Black students making up over 90% of lowest level classes. Today, the data shows we are continuing to underserve our Black students as is clear with the high fail rates we see across classes and grades. Clearly, current interventions are not working.
At the High School, we need to provide students with more choices. We must bring back a 21st century vo-tech program that speaks to the burgeoning green economy. An alternative program is necessary to better serve our under credited, over-age students. Beyond that we need to start finding solutions early at the elementary level. This means guaranteeing universal Pre-K for all our children and supporting our young students that are struggling with interventions like individualized instruction and tutoring. Many of the current interventions do not have enough support or lack teeth to be effective. We need to look at the data, and construct a blueprint that will finally give students and families the resources they need to succeed.