Maplewood Schools / Kids South Orange

Elizabeth Baker: South Orange-Maplewood Is Addressing Civil Rights Agreement

On Monday, November 20, South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker gave a detailed report on what the district has been doing to fulfill a settlement with the U.S. Dept. of Education’s Office of Civil Rights regarding the district’s achievement gap between black and white students.

“Coming out of last month’s meeting,” said Baker, “I and other board members had received many understandable questions…. While we outlined many of those next steps at the tail end of the discussion it was late and I think we all needed time to step back and process the import of the data and the discussion as well as feedback from community.”

“I wanted to briefly go over what has been done so it can be found in one easy place.”

Watch Baker’s report here (it starts at 19:57 in the video).

Baker said that as the district has worked to redesign its website, certain key pieces of information have been no longer “findable.” Baker said that she has asked Interim Superintendent of School Dr. Thomas Ficarra and the administration to make sure all key documents related to complaints and resolutions with the OCR will be “front and center” on the website. “So that the community at all times knows what we are doing are how we are doing it and where we are.”

Baker did a quick recap, detailing that the Access & Equity policy was adopted in October 2015, followed two months later by the Placement Policy. Baker noted that “without the placement policy… Access & Equity has no meaning.”

“Coming out of those policy adoptions… the administration was charged with creating an implementation plan. That implementation plan was presented to the public as well as the Office of Civil Rights in June 2016.” Baker said that this document would soon be shared on the district website (see the “The Access & Equity Timeline” below).

Baker noted that the plan “details step by step what we were doing, first, to dismantle barriers to access, (2) to revise placement policies, to develop other measure of data, to create a very aggressive and different platform for communicating with parents and students regarding course placement recommendations, curricular paths, particularly key points like the elementary to middle school math transition. And perhaps very significantly, we eliminated the placement test that had artificially sorted children and that we heard much about month in and month out from the public and that many of us had experienced as parents.”

“So,” said Baker, “those artificial barriers were eliminated by spring of 2016. That was very significant.”

She continued, “We also began looking at the curriculum, changing the way math was being taught by eliminating level 2 math in the middle schools and then the pilot that is underway this year in the 9th grade.”

Baker said that the Board was waiting for recommendations to come back from Dr. Ficarra and was looking at overall elimination of level 2 math which is a below grade level course. “Nobody should be in a below grade level course from one year to the next,” said Baker. She said that she and other Board members felt very strongly that “students should be supported at reaching grade level and excelling.”

“In addition, the Guidance department and the leadership at the high school undertook a series of curriculum nights, transition nights, AP course information nights, including nights that were led by students and student groups such as MAC Scholars,” said Baker, “creating those opportunities for parents and students to access that information even on the weekends because we know for many working parents evenings are difficult. We expanded summer supports and the preparation materials for summer, particularly math, and we’ve been going full steam ahead with anti-bias and cultural competency training including the 4 half days of training that are a part of the calendar this year and will be going forward.”

Baker continued: “As Dr. Ficarra has already noted, when he was hired the mandate that the board gave to him was that we do three things:

“1- We integrate our schools from elementary through high school, from one school to the other and within each school,

“2 – That we fully implement A&E and insure that the civil rights of every student in are district are respected and that every child is supported and valued,

“3- and that we design a state of the art curricular instructional experience for every child.”

“And that required not just the aspirational work and the strategic work that we’ve as a community  outlined we are doing, but it also required that someone with Dr. Ficarra’s experience and independence come in and look under the hood at every aspect of the district’s operations.”

“That has been a lot of work,” said Baker, that involved “how we are operating, how we are organizing data or not, how we are revising curriculum, how we are planning for our budget, how we are planning for our facilities — both our operations this year and our capital expenditures going forward — and at the same time taking the deep dive into the curriculum and the work that has to be done to meet not just our legal mandates but the values and expectations of this school community.”

Baker said that “the next steps are very clear from the Board’s perspective.”

Baker noted that the Board had held off on goal setting for this school year until Dr. Ficarra had got a chance to “look under the hood” and also as it waited for the data that was presented at the October Board meeting.

Those next steps were the Dec. 6 board retreat, a public meeting that had been noticed, said Baker.

“When we convene on Dec. 6 we will frame out goals for the balance of the school year in all of these areas,” said Baker.

“Not only are we going to focus on these substantive area, but it’s important that we be transparent and communicate what’s going on,” said Baker.

Baker said, “We want to be held accountable.”

The Board President reported that she and Dr. Ficarra were presenting to town committee members in Maplewood and South Orange. “It’s not easy to say we’re going to be looking for tens of millions of dollars,” she said. It’s “very aspirational very expensive.” Baker noted, “The leaders on the [Maplewood] Township Committee were very clear, particularly the mayor, in his support of the work and the urgency of the work and that collaboration.”

Baker noted that she and Dr. Ficarra were also presenting to the South Orange Board of Trustees on  on Dec. 13 for a similar presentation. “That’s what we have to keep doing,” said Baker. “Go to every group, in libraries, towns, seniors. So that everyone is not only bought in but is holding all of ourselves collectively accountable.”

Baker noted that the two new Board of Education members — Robin Baker and Tony Mazzocchi — would be joining the Board at the December retreat and that they would be starting their Board member training in December.

“We will report out of the retreat at the December meeting (to be held December 18, 7:30 pm. at 525 Academy Street), and I expect that we will have Board goals and district goals that we will approve….  I think we will have clear guidance from Dr. Ficarra on where we are headed as well as clear guidance from the Board on what we are doing.”

Related stories:

In South Orange-Maplewood, Leveling Inequality Persists for Black Students, Report Says

Baker: Work of Educational Equity and Systemic Change Is Not Easy, But We Must Move Forward

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