Letter to the Editor: South Orange-Maplewood School District Responds to BOE Member Wright Comments

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Editor’s note: this letter from SOMSD refers to an article posted by The Village Green on May 26, 2020, which included comments and a letter written by Board of Education member Johanna Wright. Wright’s initial letter is reprinted at the end.

From the South Orange Maplewood School District:

May 29, 2020

Dear Village Green Editors,

On May 26, 2020, a letter penned by Johanna Wright concerning the District’s preparedness, curriculum updates, and distance learning plan was published by the Village Green.  Please note, as a District we have the best interest of students in mind at all times and we believe that all of our staff and BOE also share the same sentiment.

Dr. Taylor recently shared a communication with the SOMSD community, on May 22, where he shared that we are nimble.  We have heard the concerns of parents and students alike and to that end, we are working with our SOMEA partners (our collective bargaining unit for our teachers) and will be working together to plan for what we believe will be vast improvements in our distance learning capacity (which will include extensive professional development prior to the 2020-2021 school year). We are also reviewing multiple digital platforms to determine a more streamline prescriptive approach, that will result in our distance learning methodology being more consistent (while protecting privacy), age-appropriate, and most of all safe for both students and teachers.

With this said, we as a District would like to respond to inaccuracies in Ms. Wright’s letter and provide “actual facts” around some of the false/inaccurate assertions stated in the letter.

Please note the following:

Assertion #1: The District’s curriculum had not been updated since 2018

  • Statement of Fact: A full curriculum is in place that was approved to the Board’s Curriculum Committee and subsequently presented to and approved by the BOE throughout 2018.  It is important to note, that the District approves curriculum documents throughout the calendar year, not all at one time.  The District updated and provided over 130-course curriculums for review and subsequent approval by the BOE in 2018 (see the attached curriculum approval list, with BOE resolution # and approval dates).  The District’s curriculum for all courses was not only approved by the BOE but also NJQSAC in 2018.  All District curriculum documents are on pace to be revised for the next QSAC visit in spring 2021.  So far this year alone, the Board has approved 39 individual curriculum guide updates that were presented to the Board’s Curriculum Committee prior to the Board’s official confirming vote, these updates also included the addition of the Amistad and Holocaust curriculum.

Assertion #2: The District failed NJQSAC in 2018 (QSAC is an evaluation system created to ensure that districts are providing thorough and efficient education to all students):

  • Statement of Fact: The District PASSED QSAC in 2018.  The NJDOE provided a letter in August 2019 (under then Interim Superintendent, Dr. Ficarra’s leadership), pursuant to the requirements of N.J.A.C. 6A:30 that the Maplewood & South Orange School District has satisfied all five-areas of the QSAC review process (Instruction & Program, Fiscal Management, Governance, Operations, and Personnel) and has been designated as “high performing.”  The results were subsequently shared at the September 2018 BOE public meeting.

Assertion #3: The District did not have a curriculum or even a curriculum framework in place when the Governor requested a preparedness plan as early as March 6, 2020.

  • Statement of Fact: On March 6, the NJDOE issued guidance for school districts on Covid-19  and asked that each school district begin to develop a preparedness plan for the provision of home instruction to students in the event of a closure. The preparedness plan was to also address the provision of appropriate special education and other services to students with disabilities and the provision of school nutrition benefits or services to eligible students. Our District provided communications regarding updates to our distance learning prior to this date and subsequently after this date.
    • On March 5: The District provided a Special Edition: SOMSD Coronavirus Updates Newsletter and among other news shared with the SOMSD community that, “as per CDC guidelines, the District is actively working to update our existing Emergency Management Procedure to address any possible disruption to our schools.”
    • On March 10: The District shared with the SOMSD community that a draft framework had been developed for our educational approach to offsite learning for Early Childhood, Elementary, Middle, and High School and Special Services students. Our Curriculum and Instruction team is now formalizing our approach to ensure that the design offers consistency across all grade levels and secondary courses. The team will work with subject-level and grade-level supervisors (i.e., teachers and department leaders) to provide input and details and assignment design.
    • On March 13:   The District communicated that schools would be closed tentatively for two-weeks and Distance learning via home instruction for students would begin on Wednesday, March 18, 2020.   We shared that all students from K–12 would be provided with access to Google Classroom to access two-weeks’ worth of assignments from their teachers and that parents would be receiving letters in the mail that should arrive early next week providing important information on accessing your child’s classroom portal.
    • On March 15: Subsequently, the Special Education department shared communications with special education and Pre-K families concerning, distance learning planning and guidelines during the District’s emergency closing.
    • On March 17: The District shared our Distance Learning Guidelines & FAQs for Parents & Students.

We understand that there is always room for improvement, and as a District, we will continue to partner with our BOE, administration, staff and greater SOMSD community to make the best decisions for our students.


South Orange & Maplewood School District

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Letter from Johanna Wright:

The first preparedness plan was requested by the Governor as early as March 6, 2020. So we had time from that date to put ours in place.

However, we did not have a curriculum or even a curriculum framework in place. A curriculum consists of the topics that a student needs to master. Plus provides direction to the teacher, or person providing it to the student, along with the information the teacher should have or the additional training that the teacher should have to teach the curriculum. Our curriculum had not been updated since 2018 when we failed NJQSAC. (“NJQSAC is an evaluation system created to ensure that districts are providing a thorough and efficient education to all students”).

The curriculum is the basis for the online training.

As a district, we knew we needed to start as early as possible to put the online training in place because of the deficiencies in our curriculum. We didn’t. Nor did we include those in our district with experience in developing online courses to be part of the planning for our online course development.

People with experience in producing online training courses, the principals or administrators who had that experience in our district, were not asked to contribute. In fact, we’ve let them go. So not only was our curriculum incomplete (not updated), our plans were not using best practices from other districts who had developed effective plans. Couple that with the fact that those who could have helped us more in the district, who had that knowledge and experience, were not included in the building of our online plan, is why as a district we are in the situation we are now.

If you look at the online plans developed in Livingston, East Orange, Bloomfield, Verona and other school districts in Essex County, and compare how effective those plans are being rolled out vs. ours, the difference is striking. It is even more striking when one compares the school taxes our residents pay vs. the school taxes levied in those other school districts in Essex County. Our residents, our students are entitled to better.

It was very clear from the beginning, that in our plan there were far too many inconsistencies. In trying to be good for everybody, it was not good for anybody.

I am speaking on behalf of myself, not that of the BOE.

Johanna Wright



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