Maplewood Schools / Kids South Orange Towns

Board of Ed Seeks to Align ‘Academic Placement’ Policy With ‘Access & Equity’

The South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education continued its conversation about access and equity at its November 16 meeting with a discussion of a revision of Policy 2314: Academic Placement.

Board member Elizabeth Baker explained that the Board’s Policy and Monitoring Committee along with Board member Beth Daugherty had taken on the task of redrafting the Academic Placement policy to make it align with the new Access & Equity policy which was adopted at the Board of Education’s October 2015 meeting.

Under the Access & Equity policy, students will have the choice and guidance to decide their own academic levels and will be provided supports to do so.

The Board will vote on the changes to the Academic Placement policy at its December meeting.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Ramos explained that the new Academic Placement policy would respect the guidance of the Access & Equity policy and “make plain” that while the district would maintain levels “there would always with the possibility of reforming them,” first via pilot, but that nothing permanent regarding levels would be done without the approval of the Board.

Ramos also noted that, “while the leveling remains in place there is the fact that students are able to access beyond the particular level that might be assigned to them if they choose to — again honoring the access policy.” Ramos explained that that was the reason why the words “non-binding guidance” were in the first line of the newly drafted Academic Placement policy. “We don’t want students who are doing very poorly in an elemental kind of math class to suddenly go to AP chemistry. We want to guide them. The mindset on the part of the staff needs to be appropriate… but at  the end of the day the parents and children have the ability to access as they choose according to the policy.” Ramos later added that the authors of this revision wanted to make sure that “nothing about the language of this policy would do anything to dispel or displace the language of the Access & Equity policy.”

Board First Vice President Madhu Pai said she wanted choice to include college and career readiness, as potentially not everyone will go to college. She wanted more language on communicating what the process is. She also said that she found language on supports “loosey goosey” and worried that the policy “overpromised” on supports.

Ramos said that some of the questions Pai had raised would be further defined in the regulations and procedures that follow the policy.

Ramos said he wanted to bring the Board back to the fact that, while money is involved in moving forward with these changes, there is still the idea of mindset and paradigm.

He described two mindsets, one in which a promising student in a lower level has the option of moving up if they get an “A” and another in which the student is put in the higher level course with academic support and the option of returning to the lower level course if it is too difficult — a “safety net.” In support of the second method, Ramos argued for a “paradigm” shift and said that this mindset is what the policy practically supports.

Regarding career readiness versus college readiness, Ramos acknowledged this concern, but maintained that all students should have the prerequisites to go to college so that “no matter what they choose to do, they’re ready.”

Board Second Vice President Johanna Wright worried, “Is this going to be the same as leveling?”

Ramos said that implementation was key. “It’s acknowledging that although the levels exist and although guidance will be provided, it is ultimately up to the student and their family as to what level they will go into.”

Many board members expressed concern about the seemingly singular goal of promoting students to AP courses. On the subject of lower level classes, Ramos stated that “those lower level classes cannot be about a wink and a nod” and that according to the access and equity policy they need to be more robust and engaging so students can move up.

Alternate student representative Filip Saulean was vocal that when it came to the “race question,” saying, “I personally think that we need to do more and this is only a step in the right direction.” Ramos responded that “what will change the level 1 and level 2 classrooms from being all students of color… is going to be the support systems that will be built in k-12 that ensure student success at every level.” He added that “this community is far too sophisticated to be stuck in this conversation” and that “we need to recognize everyone’s value and do the work to ensure their success.”

Board member Jeffrey Bennett argued that a truly equitable practice cannot be to give students equal resources, but that students in the bottom third of achievement need to receive even more resources than those at the middle and top thirds.

Saulean again spoke out to applause when he implored the board to provide programs which address different learning types. Saulean argued that, as only students geared toward a certain pedagogical method will succeed under that method, real equity means addressing different learning types.

During public comments later in the meeting, Walter Fields of SOMA Black Parents Workshop, said that he felt the new draft of the Academic Placement policy was “not a paradigm shift but a paradigm nudge.”

“It should be all high level courses without distinction of levels,” said Fields. “We’ve created this stratification based upon levels and we know who’s been locked in those levels.” Fields added that college readiness should mean that all students are taking courses that are preparing them for college. With the continuation of levels, Field argued, “We’re providing access, but we’re just providing access to the same system.”

“So why do we have levels? It makes no sense. And it’s the one area that would prevent my organization from supporting this and would cause my organization to have a serious discussion with the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights because I think you are playing games here if you are giving access with no equity.”

Fields previously has participated in a complaint against the district by the ACLU and the UCLA Civil Rights Project.

Fields posited an alternative to leveling; something he called programs, in which students could choose between college readiness programs and career and technical education programs.

In response to Fields’ comments, Board member Elizabeth Baker made this clarification, “I don’t think that anyone thinks the Academic Placement policy is the fulfillment of the Access & Equity policy. It’s one tool. It’s one step while the k-12 program is being seriously realigned.” Baker noted that adjustments were being made to the Academic Placement policy now “to avoid further harm.”

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