Last night, the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education voted 7-2 to restructure the STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) curriculum, which included a reduction in math levels (story to come). The following statement on behalf of the group PARES—Parents in Partnership for Respect and Equity in SOMA Schools was read during public speaks by Rhea Beck.
For more than two decades, by whatever design, and for whatever purpose, one group of students has been systematically alienated from their potential, segregated from their peers and disenfranchised by the adults trusted to educate them. Our community watched over the years as thousands of children of color were stripped of their right to the kind of education that prepares them to engage with and excel in the world beyond the confines of their high school. Together this prosperous community created a virtual caste system in our schools, all the while congratulating ourselves on the diversity of our neighborhoods.
In fairness, for decades, some SOMA residents and organizations have advocated for equity for children of color, but the district remained seemingly unmoved until lawsuits amplified the inequities in the system and forced us to reckon with and admit the wrong that we have done. And yet, in the three years since the Office of Civil Rights consent decree and the creation of the Access and Equity policy, even a cursory look at the data shows nothing significant has changed.
One of the ways that we have hidden our segregation in plain sight is by the continued embrace of the outmoded, debunked practice of hyper-leveling. Civil rights activists in the 60’s and social scientists beginning again in the 1980’s have exposed leveling as nothing more than a means to perpetuate inequality. And to be clear, we are not concerned here about the levels of achievement possible when students are tracked, we are concerned with the distribution of achievement across an entire school. In SOMSD, students of color remain corralled in the lowest level classroom — underrepresented in honors, advanced honors and AP classes.
There are those who urge a preservation of the status quo out of a desire to not deprive their own children of the rigor of advanced level classes. We contend that rigor is not synonymous with exclusion. In fact, real rigor comes when classrooms are filled with diverse viewpoints and ways of learning – environments that push all students beyond other people’s preconceptions about their abilities. It should be no parent’s or no educator’s desire to create students who will merely be another successful cog, but to grow a generation of children who will be revolutionary, compassionate thinkers and doers.
Teachers are gardeners, not gatekeepers, as such it should be our common purpose to ensure that they are all equipped with the support necessary to nurture a diverse community of learners.
We want to acknowledge the District’s efforts to dismantle all the systemic barriers that have prevented excellence for all students in our schools, in particular for children of color. We support all thoughtful proposals to meaningfully integrate our schools and integrate our classrooms. It is imperative that we divest ourselves of these disproven approaches to education, and begin to provide our children with a learning environment that readies them for the 21st century global marketplace.
We recognize that school integration and de-leveling in particular is but one piece of a much larger approach to closing the achievement gap, and we further recognize that it is not an overnight solution. The district must also continue to build trust with parents who have been disappointed in the past by the district’s failure to operationalize plans, or to see other important projects through. But it takes just as much energy to embrace optimism as it does to maintain cynicism- In this moment, we choose to remain hopeful.
We will also remain vigilant.
PARES has developed a strong base of support from both white parents and parents of color. As a community, we are growing in numbers and force.
We will be watching – as you make continued recommendations to reduce the hyper leveling across all subject areas, so all classes become meaningfully integrated.
We will be watching – to ensure that any new organization of curricula do not just recreate the same pattern of children of color concentrated on the bottom as is the current state, for example, in 9th grade biology where 36.3 percent of Black students are in honors, compared to 89.1 percent of white students
We will be watching – to advocate for more resources and support for teachers faced with a more diverse student body in the classroom, and that the best teachers are not reserved for just AP and Honors.
We will be watching – as you simplify course selection so parents don’t need a key to decipher the course catalogues.
We will be watching – to hold the district accountable to make sure the teachers are APPLYING what they learn in anti bias professional development so they are not intentionally or unintentionally perpetuating the Golem Effect, where lower expectations placed on students actually lead to poorer performance.
And, finally, we will be watching to see if your plan is BOLD enough to take us into the future. As a parent group, we will hold you accountable when you are urged by naysayers to ‘wait’, or to ‘slow down’, to ‘remember what happened the last time’ or to reorganize entire systems prioritizing the needs of a few, over the rights of many. We are at the beginning of the journey to excellence and we urge you to push yourselves, to push us past the merely acceptable into a radical new understanding of what it means to educate and support ALL of the students in South Orange Maplewood. We look forward to a continued partnership.