BOE Student Rep on Race Forums: ‘Students Want to See Changes Now’

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On Monday, December 15, the Student Representative to the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education, Maggie Kritzberg, presented a longer-than-usual report to the Board. Afterwards, Board President Beth Daugherty called the report “fantastic.” Board member Johanna Wright said, “I’d just like to thank you for your report and thank the students of Columbia High School for having the courage to have a conversation that adults won’t have and should.” Read Kritzberg’s report to find out what elicited these comments. The pertinent portion of Kritzberg’s report begins around the sixth paragraph. 

Thank you Mrs. Daugherty, the Board:

I am happy to report that we have had another great few months at CHS, and we are now at the end of our fall sports season, and we are now moving into an exciting winter season for many students.

Friday night will be our opening night for sports activities, so I encourage everyone to look out for schedules of different games and please come out and support our teams! The CHS swim team is actually starting earlier than the other teams and for the first time in nearly three years, our swim team will be having a meet in our own pool, thanks to the repairs that have been made to make that possible. This meet will be taking place tomorrow. So, go Cougars!

Additionally, both middle schools, and CHS have had their auditions for the all school musical, and are getting ready to enter intense rehearsal schedules over the next few months. Speaking of music, we had a fabulous band concert just a few weeks ago, an orchestra concert coming up on January 13th, and our choir concert is actually taking place tonight! So good luck to everyone, and congrats to our band and choir. Also today, the orchestra program had the pleasure of spending all day in master classes with two members of the American String Quartet. I was there for that event, and it was a really great experience, enjoyed by so many of our students.

Also, coming up on Monday, I am very excited to report that CHS will be hosting Grads Return! This is a full day program in which we will have CHS alumni come and speak on panels to students about their experiences as college and graduate students.

Lastly, before I jump into a larger, more substantial portion of my update I just want to let the Board know that Mr. Stern and I have been holding meetings for the School Social Justice and Law Club. Recently, we have been having conversations about the CHS support system that we have for students, and how to ensure that students feel safe and supported at CHS in every way possible. We are looking forward to continuing these conversations with students into the New Year.

I just want to let everyone know that this next portion of my update is a little bit longer than usual, but it addresses very important issues that have been surfacing more at CHS and throughout the country. So with that being said, on November 25th, students led a walk out protest in the hallways, and then in the front of Columbia to protest the grand jury decision made in the Ferguson Missouri case following the shooting of Michael Brown. The protest was peaceful, powerful, and called for action. Not only to bring justice to those who are treated unequally every day, but to call for change, starting in the our school district.

On December 4th, students held a die-in protest, led by Sofia Petros Gouin and Mia Goldstein to protest both the Eric Garner and Michael Brown decisions, and to call attention to the many black men who have been killed due to gun violence in our country. We laid on the ground for 4 and a half minutes. Hundreds of students were there, and participated, including students from Watchung Hills High School who happened to be participating in a program at CHS that day. I have to take a moment to say thank you to our phenomenal principal, the entire CHS administration, Mr. Memoli, and of course our awesome students-especially leaders of the protest, Mia and Sofia, who helped make this happen.

I am proud to say that following these protests, the conversations with students about how to move forward in our school community did not stop. After meeting with administrators, CHS students led three powerful forums last Thursday. And being there for nearly two full forums, I must share some information that came out of these events. I think it will be helpful to us as a district trying to address many issues regarding race, treatment and service of our students to acknowledge what was said.

So, in a packed Black box Theatre one of the many things addressed from this forum was how we were going to have a discussion- not about the past events, but about how race pertains to Columbia today.

One of the questions asked was how diverse are we? Are we an inclusive community? Are we liberal as some might suggest? Many people came forward with differing opinions on this. Race isn’t the only thing that makes us diverse, students said; Diversity is seen in so many different aspects of our school.

We acknowledged, together, that we need to work to create dialogue and that it is ok to diverge from the status quo, to share different opinions, and allow people to do so openly and understandably. This has unfortunately not always been our environment at Columbia.

A huge issue that was raised during this time was how in many ways, we are all affected and hurt by the biases and prejudices that exist within our society and our schools. We must work to change that. One way that we can start is by addressing how we are, at times, self-segregated, and allow self-segregation to persist within the climate at CHS. Many raised the concern over the leveling system and simply feeling as though they are trapped in lower level classes. It is so easy to move down a level some might say, but it can be very difficult to move up. If we are to have levels, if we are to have AP classes, every student in Columbia or our middle schools and even our elementary schools must be made to feel encouraged, that they can and should strive to meet expectations. I am here to report to our board, that students are recognizing these issues and want them to be addressed. Too long have many African American students been made to feel that they have to work twice as hard to get the same result as some of their peers. I am hoping that moving forward we can address this as well. Leveling should not be about trapping a student in a place that they don’t want to be in. It should be about helping them rise to the highest place that they can reach to have academic achievement. This is not what our system reflects and supports right now.

One of the most important things acknowledged during this forum is how some feel that we are like two different schools, whether we are looking in at the Cafeteria, football games- classrooms — there are some major disparities.

The two last things I want to address are two other very powerful points that came out of the forum. One might seem obvious, and yet it is very important to acknowledge. Students are saying that we cannot as a community continue to make generalizations and judgments about people, their families, their homes and their ability to achieve based on race and the color of their skin. They feel these generalizations are being made one way or another, and this must be pointed out and stopped. The conversation about race needs to be happening earlier than in high school. Let’s address how we are talking about race in middle school, elementary school. Let’s encourage the conversation, not condemn it. In closing, I am asking our board to move forward whether it is with a consultant, talking with teachers and administrators, or discussing these issues, to think about what our students have said. Think about how the problems still exist, and we must move quickly to address them. A year should not have to go by for changes to happen. Students want to see changes now. Thank you.

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