The following is a statement read by Walter Fields, head of the Black Parents Workshop, at Monday’s
South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education Meeting.
Tonight, I come before the Board to put into the public record the efforts of the Black Parents Workshop to assist the South Orange-Maplewood School District in complying with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) Resolution Agreement (OCR Docket No. 02-13-5003) entered into by this district in October 2014.
- In 2014 upon the invitation of then principal of South Side High School Dr. Carol Burris, the Black Parents Workshop led a delegation of district administrators and Board members to visit the high school in Rockville Center Long Island. South Side High School and the Rockville Centre School District has gained a national reputation for eliminating academic tracking or “leveling” and the racial achievement gap in a racially diverse school district. South Side High School is a National Blue-Ribbon School of Excellence, a New York State High Performance School and designated a “Gold” High School by U.S. News and World Report.
Dr. Burris, a nationally recognized and honored educator, subsequently offered her assistance to help our district achieve similar outcomes as the Rockville Centre School District.
- Also in November 2014, the Black Parents Workshop communicated with Dr. Donna Ford, a nationally recognized expert on the achievement gap and Gifted & Talented programs, and a tenured professor specializing in education research at Vanderbilt University. Professor Ford offered her services to the district to help guide its compliance with the Office of Civil Rights Resolution Agreement and develop a plan to achieve equity.
- In November 2015, upon the request of Superintendent Dr. John Ramos, the Black Parents Workshop provided substantive editing, and we have the documentation and email trail to prove it, to the proposed policies on Access & Equity, and Academic Placement. Our edits were incorporated into the final versions of both policies.
- Also in 2015 the Black Parents Workshop participated and supported the Education Summit convened by Dr. John Ramos and subsequently participated in the three-day Strategic Planning exercise in 2016.
- The Black Parents Workshop communicated with the Compliance Team Investigator at the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights on February 2, 2016 and expressed our concern that the South Orange-Maplewood School District was failing to comply with the Resolution Agreement it signed with OCR in 2014.
- On March 18, 2016 the Black Parents Workshop sent a letter to Board President Elizabeth Baker warning against budget cuts that would reduce teachers and by effect increase teacher-student ratios, and negatively impact the Access & Equity, and Academic Placement policies.
- On June 7, 2016, upon the invitation to the Black Parents Workshop by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the nation’s foremost civil rights litigation organization, Dr. John Ramos and myself met with their senior staff. The organization offered to assist the district in complying with the Office of Civil Rights Resolution Agreement.
- During the 2015-2016 school year, the Black Parents Workshop supported African-American students in Columbia High School who organized and created the Black Student Union as a vehicle to communicate their concerns to the school administration and school district.
- The Black Parents Workshop arranged a meeting with staff at the Morgan State University School of Education and Urban Studies in Baltimore, Maryland to discuss developing a teacher pipeline for the express purpose of recruiting African-American teachers to the district. The meeting was facilitated by the president of the University, Dr. David Wilson. That meeting took place in Baltimore on April 25, 2017 and Assistant Superintendent Kevin Walston and Columbia High School teacher Thomas Whitaker accompanied me to that meeting.
- In May 2017, the Black Parents Workshop sent a letter to Board President Elizabeth Baker requesting the following information by July 1, 2017:
▪ A breakdown of course enrollment, by level and AP status, and by race, gender, and teacher for students grades 8-12 in the 2016-2017 school year; and
▪ The district’s plans for the 2017-2018 school year that will put in place appropriate tools and interventions to elevate Black student achievement
- On August 23, 2017 the Black Parents Workshop objected to the adoption of a grades 6-8 Social Studies curriculum that left unaddressed issues in the K-5 curriculum that came to light during the misguided 5th grade ‘slave auction poster’ assignment. We raised questions as to what teachers participated in the development of the curriculum, how many African-American teachers were part of that process, how many of the district’s teachers or staff attended the state-run summer New Jersey Amistad Institute, and how community groups were engaged and how they were selected to engage.
- On September 27, 2017 the legal counsel to the Black Parents Workshop sent a letter to the district demanding it ‘cease and desist’ practices impeding Black students’ access to higher-level courses. We took this action after hearing from parents whose children were denied access to the classes of their choice, even upon being recommended by a teacher and guidance counselor, due to Guidance Department rules that only permitted students to “level-down” but not “level up” in September. We have recently learned of other such denials and will be bringing those cases to the attention of Dr. Ficarra.
- The Black Parents Workshop reached out to Dr. Robert Jarvis, Director of the Center for Educational Leadership at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania; who also leads a three-state – Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York – consortium on educational equity. I traveled to meet with Dr. Jarvis on September 28 2017 to see how our district might be able to participate in the consortium. By teleconference we spoke to Dr. Aaron Graham, the co-director of the New Jersey Consortia for Excellence through Equity and someone who I have known for years when he was the Superintendent of Bergen County for 15 years. In New Jersey the Consortia is now a project under the New Jersey Association of School Administrators. In the process of meeting with Dr. Graham on October 2, 2017, I learned that he approached this district one year ago to join the Consortia – a group that includes the Montclair, Teaneck, Hackensack and Hoboken school districts – with no success. Last week Dr. Jarvis, Dr. Graham and myself met with Dr. Ficarra on October 10 2017 and I would hope the district would join the 44 New Jersey school districts that have made a commitment to equity.
- On September 30 2017 the Black Parents Workshop sponsored a Legal Workshop for Parents of Students with Special Needs with participation by the Senior Staff Attorney for the New Jersey ACLU, the president of SEPAC and a private attorney with experience representing families of students with special needs. This workshop was held because the Black Parents Workshop is acutely aware of how special needs students have been treated in this district.
The OCR Resolution Agreement required the district to file reports August 14, 2015, August 14, 2016 and August 14, 2017, detailing the steps the district was taking to comply with the Agreement. To our knowledge, the district did not file these reports. If the reports do exist, we are demanding that they are immediately posted on the district’s website. The district has also failed with the Agreement’s stipulation that the district engage community groups and keeps them abreast of its work to meet compliance. The district has also failed the Agreement’s requirement of data maintenance, evident in the fact that tonight the public will hear the first report on Access & Equity, three years after it signed the OCR Resolution Agreement.
I have outlined this chronology to make it clear that the Black Parents Workshop has been thoroughly engaged in efforts to compel the South Orange-Maplewood School District to act in accordance with the law and in the interests of the academic success of its African-American student population. Contrary to misinformation, some of it purposely put forth and some of it spread out of ignorance and racism, the Black Parents Workshop, as a volunteer community-based organization, has tried to point this district in the direction of equity but it keeps getting lost. You’re lost because your moral compass is broken. We have been more than patient with the constant missteps, excuses and outright resistance to embracing equity and putting in place the requisite programs and services to not just close but eliminate the racial achievement gap.
In the yearbook for the Columbia High School Class of 1939, principal Curtis H. Threlkeld wrote – “Each of us needs to appreciate right and wrong. We need to develop a code of ethics to guide our every act.” That sage advice seems to be lost upon this Board, as it has failed the simplest of ethical tests – treat all children with dignity and respect.
It is our contention that the South Orange-Maplewood School District is operating a de facto system of elementary and secondary education segregation. We are prepared to contest this district’s practices as violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, provisions of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, equal protection provisions under the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution, and Article I, Section 5 of the New Jersey Constitution that prohibits segregation in public education. This district now stands poised to be remembered in the same fashion as that of the Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, the defendants in the history-making decision of Brown v. Board of Education.
We know that these concerns that we have been raising for three years, and that has plagued this district for over two decades, must be heard in a venue where evidence can be presented and records, data, internal written correspondence, external written correspondence, and electronic communications can be discovered and parties can be deposed. What we have learned over the last three years is that compliance is a moving target for this school district, and the only way it is going to hit the mark is when it is ordered to do so. In 2017 the existence of de facto segregation in our elementary schools and within our high school, and academic tracking and discipline disparities based upon the even application of ‘punishment’ is unacceptable.
In the coming days we will announce a press conference at which time we will make clear our intentions going forward.