OPINION: We Must Address the Academic Segregation That Persists Across South Orange-Maplewood

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Susan Bergin and Courtney Winkfield are two of the six candidates who have filed to run for election to the 9-member South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education on November 3, 2020. Village Green is posting opinion pieces as well as letters in support of local candidates campaigning for election. If you wish to submit a letter or opinion piece, read Village Green’s Election Guidelines here.

Courtney Winkfield and Susan Bergin

In 2015, our SOMSD Board of Education passed a comprehensive Access and Equity policy, designed to remove barriers to Advanced Placement (AP) enrollment, such as requiring minimum GPAs or needing a guidance counselor’s referral. Last week, Dr. Taylor presented updated comprehensive data on AP enrollment by race for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years.

The data is alarming.

Not only has our Access and Equity policy failed to increase enrollment of students of color, we’ve actually seen a decrease in AP enrollment by our Black and Hispanic students. And while we have yet to receive the data, we know from anecdotal evidence that our students with IEPs (a group in which students of color are overrepresented in our district) also remain virtually shut out from AP/Honors. 

It is essential that we reverse this trajectory and create a culture in which we recognize the strengths and potential of every student and open opportunities to them. 

As we get closer to the implementation of our District’s Intentional Integration Plan, we must address the academic segregation that persists across the District. With an innovative and targeted response to address the pervasive racial and other disparities in AP enrollment, our integration efforts can create a better school system for all SOMSD students. 

We agree with Dr. Taylor’s emphasis on the need to find solutions “with actions that are authentic and lasting.” And we are optimistic about Dr. Taylor’s plans to launch a pilot for courses at the high school to allow for more flexible movement between levels with a focus on differentiated instruction to meet the needs of individual students. It is imperative the District build on this initiative, which, if done well, will improve instructional quality for all students. 

As Board members we will work with the Superintendent to set District goals to review and, if necessary, revise recruitment, preparation, enrollment and support practices for students in Honors/AP courses at Columbia High School and Honors/Advanced courses at our middle schools. In addition to the remedies prescribed by Dr. Taylor, we believe the following actions are crucial to increase AP enrollment and success rates so our AP/Honors classes have a student cohort that represents our district in terms of race, special needs, and socio-economic status:

  • The District must commit to programming inclusion sections for all AP courses with both a general education and special education teacher working in collaboration. No student should ever have to choose between pursuing AP courses and receiving the academic support to which they are legally entitled in their IEP. 
  • The District should implement high-quality student support programs for Pre-AP and AP courses offered across the country by organizations like the National Math & Science Initiative (NMSI). 
  • The District should invest in AP exam fee waivers for students eligible for free and reduced lunch.

In order for these efforts to succeed, we must invest in our educators through ongoing professional learning designed to shift biased-based beliefs to ones rooted in a growth mindset, so that our educators can tap into and support each child’s unique potential. Dr. Taylor remarked that one reason students may not enroll in AP courses is that “none of their friends are also enrolled in those classes.” This trend reveals the importance of developing a culture of high expectations and high support across the District where all our students see themselves, and are seen by teachers and administrators, as AP students. 

Every student in SOMSD is entitled to reach their highest potential, and we as a community are here to remove barriers that were created in the past, and open opportunity for every child in our school district. Let’s take these bold steps forward together to create truly equitable cultures of academic opportunity where all our SOMSD students can thrive.

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