Board of Ed Intros New ‘Access & Equity’ Policy, Vote Comes in October

by The Village Green
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A new Access & Equity policy (5755.1) was introduced on first reading by the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education last night and received overwhelming support from Board members — although some pointed out that the policy’s success would depend on further details and their implementation.

The Board will hold a second hearing and vote on the policy at its next meeting on October 19, 2015.

The policy reads as follows:

Access and Equity: All elementary, middle school, and high school parents/guardians and children in the South Orange-Maplewood School District shall have access to, and the ability to choose between current and future educational programs in all academic subjects, and at all academic levels. In furtherance of this Policy, all students shall be provided with age-appropriate academic supports for access to advanced-level courses, which may include, by way of example only, readiness programs and courses, in-school and after-school tutoring, sessions, and summer institutes. The District shall also engage in a Kindergarten through 12th grade curricular alignment, ensuring that all students develop the knowledge and skills fundamental to successful performance in Advanced Placement and advanced level courses by providing the highest levels of academic rigor in Kindergarten, Elementary, Middle and High School courses. While this Policy does not guarantee success for student achievement, it nevertheless greatly empowers students, as it is informed by mutual accountability for educational success amongst students, parents and guardians, and the South Orange and Maplewood School District. The Superintendent is directed to establish regulations and to set budgetary guidelines to make this policy effective.

During public comments, only one member of the public commented on the policy. Elissa Malespina, who is running for a seat on the Board of Education, said she felt the policy was “really good and I commend you for that” but said that it was “not something that is really new. You have something like it in place.” Malespina asked the Board, “How do you plan to implement this when the policy in place was not being followed?”

Despite Malespina’s comments, the nine Board of Education members — who often disagree quite strenuously with one another — were united in their praise for the policy and in their optimism for positive change stemming from the adoption of the policy.

Board member Elizabeth Baker thanked Superintendent Dr. John Ramos “for listening to concerns expressed by numerous Board members that we need to take measures that are not just symbolic” in responding to the Office of Civil Rights complaints filed against the district in 2014. Baker said she supported the policy but wanted the “support of other Board of Education members that you supply a report of where we are in meeting our obligations of the [OCR] settlement and I’m not aware of a clear timeframe.”

Board member Donna Smith said she also supported the policy, with one slight word change — the addition of another “all.”

Board of Education First Vice President Madhu Pai called the policy “momentous” and “long, long overdue.” She commended Dr. Ramos for tweaking the policy and making it “even better.”

“I also strongly support this policy,” said Pai, who pointed out that the policy contained language not only about access but also about choice. “We need to empower students and their families to make choices about their own education trajectory.” Pai talked about the policy creating a “trifecta of mutual accountability of students, parents and the school district. I really hope this is the start of a really positive relationship with three legs. I’m very, very excited about this, and I just can’t wait for the vote.”

Board member Maureen Jones called the policy “a step in the right direction.” She added, “Ms. Pai mentioned choice. Sometimes it’s further than choice. It’s about opportunity. With this as an initial step, it’s set the intent of us going further.”

Ramos noted that adopting the policy this fall was important as the Board moved forward with strategic planning and subsequent action plans. “In the absence of this policy, it could go a different path,” said Ramos.

Board member and former Board President Beth Daugherty also voiced her support for the policy saying, “One piece of it that really resonates for me is the sentences about curricular alignment. It’s not just about students participating in those classes — it’s that every student develops fundamental skills.” Daugherty pointed out that every student “doesn’t want a plateful of AP courses” but “from day one, every single class is meaningful.” Daugherty added, “This is a great policy.” She mentioned that in the near future the Board also needed to change the academic placement policy.

Board member and Second Vice President Johanna Wright called the policy “really, really important in terms of shaping the direction of students in the district. However, I’ve watched and seen a lot of good policies not adhered to. I want that we have something in place to ensure that the policy is implemented.” Wright added, “It’s sad that we are here at this place right now.”

Board member Jeff Bennett said, “This is something that I’m happy to be voting for. I don’t think it’s enough to make all the disparities disappear but it’s a step in the right directions.”

“I concur with a lot that has been said,” added Board member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad. “I’m thankful for the attention that you [Dr. Ramos] gave this. It starts the conversation of how do we fix the things we have sat here and discussed month over month year over year. I’ve said over and over as much as we want to talk about access in AP then we need to make sure that every classroom in our district is serving students well. I appreciate that language here speaks to that.”

Student rep Nina Kambili said that she agreed with a lot of Board members. “I hope it’s indicative of a cultural shift in the district…. I’m interested to see the specifics that go along with this.”

Finally, Board of Education President Wayne Eastman stated that he was also in support of the policy, saying “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step and this is a very big step.” Eastman said he agreed with concerns about “how this will be made effective” and said he also found the word of “choice” important. However, Eastman noted that he wished that a global option such a IB [International Baccalaureate] had been included. “When the tires were kicked on this, that language was taken out, but I would note that issues of what we mean by choice aren’t going away such as where are we going with our demonstration school.”

Note: Policy 5755.1 would not replace an existing policy. This new policy will be in addition to Policy 5755 Equity in Educational Programs and Services which can be found here

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