Maureen Jones is one of six candidates running for the South Orange – Maplewood Board of Education in November. The parent of two elementary age children in the district, Jones is an educator who works with special needs children.
A Maplewood resident, Jones has been involved in community outreach and recently completed a term as President of the Clinton PTA.
The Village Green interviewed Jones by email. Here are her responses, some of which were slightly edited for brevity.
What are the most critical, long-term priorities the district should focus on in the upcoming years?
Our district’s long-term priorities should include:
- hire a new superintendent, and support him or her in building strong relationships with the Board, the staff and the parent community,
- work with the Superintendent to propose an effective strategy to deal with the ongoing pressures of high taxes, budget caps and resource shortfalls that we expect to continue for the next several years;
- invest in capacity building for our staff and in developing teacher leadership in our schools. Professional development for our teachers can’t be restricted to trainings with expert outsiders. We need to develop the coaching and mentoring capacity of our most talented teachers to support and develop their peers; and
- ensure that we challenge all students in every classroom every day and that all adults display the consistent expectation that students can and will rise to the occasion and become successful learners.
Another priority should include reviewing the educational effectiveness of our district’s special services, to ensure that we have adequate resources in inclusion classrooms, proactive outreach to parents, a more streamlined process for evaluation and classification, as well as clarity for regular education teachers on the content of each student’s Individual Education Plan.
The district should also make sure communication with and outreach to parents, staff and the community continue on a consistent basis. This is key to engaging parents and allowing them to be part of the educational process.
With the many transitions ahead for SOMSD – administration turnover, hiring a new superintendent, implementing IB, Common Core and PARCC assessments — what would you as a new BOE member bring to the equation? How would you engage stakeholders and work with your fellow board members to reach consensus?
As an educator, I hope to bring a sense of reality to the discussion of all these things. We need to help our community understand that change does not happen overnight. It requires thought, patience and consistent dialogue with stakeholders. It involves making mistakes, recognizing them and correcting them.
Just as importantly, we need to help everyone understand and believe that real change is possible, that teachers can and will learn the challenging new instructional approaches that IB and the Common Core require, that students will be able to master the more challenging PARCC assessments and that our district will be a better place in spite of all the struggle and anxiety these changes will involve.
To gain consensus in the face of disagreement, we need to first get agreement on our vision of success and what is reasonable to expect as progress toward that vision. We then need to examine the facts to see how our efforts measure up to expectations, to assess what’s not working and strategize an appropriate plan to make the necessary changes. We need to convince everyone involved that we are not going to blame anyone – especially teachers – for mistakes that occur along the way. We need to explain clearly –especially to anxious parents — how each and every change we make will benefit their children in the long run.
You believe the district is at a “crucial point” with the hiring of a new superintendent. What are the most important factors the BOE should look for in candidates? How specifically would you engage various stakeholders in the community in the search process?
The Board should look for a candidate who:
- is able to understand the uniqueness, diversity and promise of our district;
- has high expectations for educational excellence and success for all our students and who knows how to lead the district to make those high expectations a reality;
- can articulate a vision for the district and for what a successful graduate of the school system looks like;
- has a demonstrated ability to establish and maintain trusting, strong relationships with the board, staff and parents; and
- can efficiently and effectively implement educational processes and policies with stakeholder input and participation, aligned with the vision of the district, and with interim benchmarks and checkpoints along the way.
What do you think about Brian Osborne’s tenure and what are his most important legacies? Where did you disagree with him?
Some of Dr. Osborne’s important accomplishments with which I’m directly familiar include implementing full day Kindergarten, developing and implementing an inclusion model for special education within the district, revamping the elementary math curriculum, and implementation of effective reading intervention efforts at the K-2 level to ensure that all third graders are reading on grade level.
Some of the challenges during Dr. Osborne’s tenure included a failure to establish more consistent ongoing dialogue with families, the inability to establish reasonable parent and board expectations about how long many changes would take and a failure to establish more concrete indicators of progress and success for many district initiatives.
You said the board “must show leadership in unifying parents, staff and the larger community.” How would you rate the current board in that respect, and what would you do differently if you were elected?
While efforts have been made to engage with parents, staff and the community, more work needs to be done. We must publicize what the district is doing, including ongoing programs and new initiatives. We must invite parents to come and meet us and share their thoughts. When we don’t get enough of a response, then we need to systematically seek out parents until we succeed in strengthening our ties and connections to them.
We need to let parents know they have access to board members and [that] each and every parent knows who to call and how to navigate the system when they have questions or concerns about their children. Ensuring that all parents are informed is a precondition for educational success for their children.
How would your experience as an educator working with special needs children, as well as your tenure as president of the Clinton PTA, influence how you would serve as a board member? Regarding special education in our district, what are some things you would like to see the board do going forward?
One thing I really know for sure: everyone needs to learn to listen and observe and we all need to learn to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. This is what we’re taught to do in special education. When I have a session with a child or a group of children, and I want to teach some skill, I probably spend most of my time with them setting it up, understanding what gets and holds their attention, what may be bothering a particular child on a given day. I want to make sure they really learn what I’m trying to teach.
I know that’s an important approach for all educators, and I discovered last year that it was the right way to connect with parents in my PTA and outreach work. I believe the Board needs to do that, to understand how its goals and decisions impact children and their parents, and staff members trying to get the job done in the classroom.
If you…really listen and try to imagine what it’s like to be the parent of a special needs child in our district, then you might come to the conclusion that we have work to do to make our district easier to navigate for parents, to help them better understand their child’s unique challenges and to help them advocate for their child with all the adults in his or her school.
If elected, one of my first priorities will be to convince my fellow Board members that we need to review and substantially improve the entire process with which we evaluate and classify children with an Individualized Education Plan or a 504 accommodation.
Where do you stand on further implementation of the IB program? Would you vote to continue the program as it is, to scale it back, to wait before implementing in other grades? What would successful implementation look like? Do you think it should eventually be brought to CHS, and at what point?
I have heard from some parents and educators that IB has already been beneficial to our sixth graders and resulted in some great learning experiences for their children and students. However, the 2013-14 school year was only the first year of implementation and any time you roll out a program, it needs time to develop through trial and error and continued investment in teacher development and practice.
We should continue to analyze the successes and kinks – see what works, what doesn’t and how we can improve on that. Before we can even pose the question of bringing IB to the high school we need to ensure it is up and running smoothly at the middle schools and that we are examining data and findings from the first few years. A fully functioning IB Middle Years program that passes external review by the IB organization is certainly a number of years away.
What should a board member’s role be in responding in public to concerns voiced at meetings by parents and staff? For example, there has been dissension between SOMS staff and Principal Uglialoro, and concern among Marshall School staff about the “Code Red” incident, both of which were raised by parents and staff at recent board meetings.
It is the public’s right to address the Board during public meetings and voice any and all concerns. And it is important for board members to really listen to those concerns…However, in my view, Board meetings are not the place for back and forth exchanges or blame and attack sessions. What we need is a more effective way for any parent with a concern to communicate that at the school level, up to the principal, and then if the concern hasn’t been addressed, to administrators in Central Office, and then, if there is still no resolution, ultimately to individual Board members.
If parents have concerns and aren’t getting the answers they need, they should call or email Board members directly…[A] list of current Board members and their personal phone numbers is published every year in the District Calendar and Handbook – they are on the bottom of page 36 of the 2013-14 Handbook, which is on the district website (search for “calendar handbook”). You can also email email@example.com and have confidence that all Board members will receive the email.
We worked hard at Clinton to inform all parents of who to call and how to proceed when they had concerns about their children. That’s called learning how to navigate the system.
If elected, one of my top priorities will be to see that all parents get simple and clear direction on how to do that. I also want to ensure that the Board is logging all phone calls and emails it receives, bringing them to the attention of the Superintendent and making sure a timely response is forthcoming.
Everyone needs to understand that mistakes are going to happen…[but] what is of most concern to me is that when the inevitable mistakes do occur, the process for parents and staff to voice their concerns, escalate their issues and get them addressed, may not be working as well as it should be.
In my work in special education in other districts, parents many times have concerns about the specific forms of support their children receive. They are worried enough about that without compounding their frustration by making it difficult for them to get a full and fair conversation with the right district personnel. Many matters get resolved if you talk about them soon enough, understand all points of view and perceive that all parties to the conversation have the child’s best interests at heart.
The board has noted there is a looming fiscal deficit approaching our district. How would you, as a BOE member, work to reduce the deficit?
I am still learning about district finances and the detail of what goes into our school budget of nearly $120 million, so I am not sure I am a source of wisdom on this question. But as an educator, I do know that money is very tight and we can’t solve this problem by continuing to reduce staff. There is a lot of concern among parents of special needs children that the cuts to inclusion teachers in the 2014-15 budget went too far.
I do know that we need to be sure that parents and taxpayers are fully informed about where all the money goes, to try to get community agreement on whatever strategies are proposed each year at budget time.
Another thing I do know is that in order to save money we have to spend money. By spending money on providing intensive early intervention programs for special needs students and struggling readers, we can be effective in reducing the amount of money we spend in subsequent years and improving educational outcomes for children at the same time. That’s a win-win.
What do you think of the BOE’s current proposal for a Gifted & Talented program, and what would a successful G&T program look like to you?
First, I think it’s important to recognize that all of our students possess gifts and talents and that sometimes recognizing them is the key to getting a student excited and engaged about a broader range of things. So, we want to make sure that by establishing a formal Gifted & Talented Program, we don’t end up ignoring the special something that other students may have.
I would hope that what is ultimately proposed relies on best practices from other districts – that we provide support and resources to a student’s classroom teacher to allow for some of the G&T activity to occur right in the child’s classroom, with other after-school activity as needed. We also need to see this as an opportunity to connect these students and their families with the many wonderful resources we have in our unique community instead of the school district doing it all.
The other thing that I know as an educator is that children who might be identified as belonging to that top 2-3% and exhibiting a talent way beyond their age group, are also still children who have most of the same emotional, social and physical needs as other children their age. And sometimes, partly because of their special talents, they might have trouble relating to children their age and need extra support in that regard. So we need to be careful that we don’t make some children feel inadequate because they are not identified as Gifted and Talented and also that those who are so identified don’t feel like outcasts from their age group.