“I’m Elizabeth Aaron, the very proud principal of Columbia High School.” With those words, Aaron kicked off the 2014 Back to School night Wednesday — her first as a new principal, and the first since the recent arrest of a CHS teacher on charges of sexually abusing students.
The charges and the ensuing media frenzy have rocked the South Orange – Maplewood community, and have undoubtedly marred Aaron’s first year as principal. But in a thoughtful, optimistic and forceful speech, Aaron vowed not to let the issue overshadow the numerous accomplishments and achievements that take place daily at Columbia High School.
“The past two weeks at Columbia have been, as you know, not easy,” she said. “We are saddened by the news from our building, and many of us – students, teachers, and families –have struggled with the loss of the happy anticipation that we started the school year with just three weeks ago. That sadness has been complicated by news coverage, by an ongoing law enforcement investigation, by social media, and by the struggles that we are experiencing personally and professionally as members of our school community” in the wake of the arrest.
Aaron acknowledged that parents had “reason to doubt us – to doubt me.” However, she promised that the “existence of that doubt only deepens my resolve to make Columbia the nation’s best performing high school – and I believe that is possible.”
Here is the full text of Aaron’s remarks, which she sent to The Village Green Thursday morning:
Good evening, and welcome to Columbia High School. It is with great pride and purpose that we have invited you to our annual Back to School Night to hear from me, to meet our administrative team, and most importantly, to hear from each of your child’s teachers about what they will be teaching this year, what expectations they have for your students, and how you can be our partners in the work we do here each day.
I am joined by Mr. Charles Ezell, our Assistant Principal for the Class of 2018, Ms. Cheryl Hewitt, Assistant Principal for our sophomores, the Class of 2017,Mr. Michael Healy our Assistant Principal for Grade 11, our Class of 2016 (he is unable to be with us tonight), and for senior parents and guardians of our Class of 2015, grade-level administrator is Dr. Jennifer Giordano, our Director of Guidance and Counseling. I thank all of them for the work they do here at CHS every day.
Over the summer, as I thought ahead to Back to School night, I thought about it from multiple perspectives – first, as a child who for years waited anxiously to ask my parents what they had thought of my teachers. Then, I thought about it as a teacher. For years I stood at my door and eagerly greeted each class’s parents as they entered my classroom at Asbury Park and Summit High Schools. Then, I thought about it as a mother, who for 7 years has had the pleasure of sitting in our district’s classrooms as a parent, hearing from my children’s teachers. Now, of course, I have the pleasure of the most stress-inducing Back to School Night ever – that is, my first as principal.
Under “normal” circumstances, of course, such a night would be a milestone. But tonight, is more complicated for us as parents, teachers, and school leaders, as it comes at a challenging time for our school and larger community. The past two weeks at Columbia have been, as you know, not easy. We are saddened by the news from our building, and many of us – students, teachers, and families –have struggled with the loss of the happy anticipation that we started the school year with just three weeks ago. That sadness has been complicated by news coverage, by an ongoing law enforcement investigation, by social media, and by the struggles that we are experiencing personally and professionally as members of our school community around the arrest of a staff member.
I assure you that we meet these challenges by committing to remain focused on teaching and learning and supporting all of our students. You have reason to doubt us – to doubt me – tonight. I recognize that. But I promise to you and our children – and our community – of which I have been a proud resident for 17 years – that the existence of that doubt only deepens my resolve to make Columbia the nation’s best performing high school – and I believe that is possible. We are already on that path. My belief that that is so is the reason I choose to work here.
It is with profound gratitude for the support many of you have expressed to us, but more importantly that you are providing to your children, that I stand before you this evening to mark this start of the school year with you and I stand here to report that the state of Columbia is strong. It will continue to be so.
The measurements of our students’ success – whether through GPAs, AP exam results, athletic, artistic, literary, and mathematical and scientific achievements, admission to top-tier universities and colleges – are the results of their, their teachers’, and your hard work, and the conditions we create together to support their achievement. As you know, parenting is not for the faint of heart. Neither is teaching. We thank you for the work that you do to support your learners.
When these impressive results are not being attained by all of our students – whether due to their family circumstances, academic conditions, disparities in our application of procedures or policies, experiences our students may weather outside of school that shape their daily lives inside the walls of Columbia – then it is incumbent upon each and every one of us, everyday, to assure that those outcomes are achievable and to eliminate any academic achievement gaps that exist. This is the work we are committed to at CHS.
We know that some of our students are disaffected and disengaged. They come to school sad, unwillingly, or frustrated, or scared of finding out whom they are and what they might achieve – and of the effort it might take to get there. They worry about whether they will have the strength to do it. It is our professional obligation as educators – and our moral imperative as thoughtful, caring citizens in the community that is Columbia and our two towns– to work as hard as we ever have to engage, nurture, and support those students. Our students amaze us every day with their grit, fortitude, and seemingly unending supply of optimism and effort. I promise you that as Principal of Columbia, my commitment to all of you and your children is to find and support students where they are, and help them get to the place they want to be next.
Our commitment to the development of the whole child, the learner, and the school citizen, of course, extends beyond the hours of the regular school day, and applies to their participation in our clubs, our sports teams, our extracurricular activities, and more.
So I ask tonight for your commitment to me and to those who teach and work here to continue to work on building a culture at CHS that is collaborative and sustained by the education, skills, talent, and professionalism of our staff members, and the support and guidance that you give us. I ask that you work with us to show our students and your children by example that we are all part of the same team, with the same goals. We must work together, and not against each other. Though we may not always agree about decisions to make or steps to take, our mutual goals must be the success of all of our students. And our conduct, conversation, and communication with each other should always reflect these ideals.
We, as teachers and leaders at Columbia, are as strong and as talented as our strongest and most talented students. We are as brilliant and as successful as our most brilliant and successful students. They receive admission letters from Ivy League universities. They enter and win national and international competitions. They have art portfolios that rival those in any in art school in the nation. They gain admission to the nation’s top music programs. They write essays and make films that win competitions. They win top awards for their publications. They push intellectual boundaries every day in their classes, in their writing, and in the ways that they question their learning, their teachers and the world. We are proud of that work.
Yet we are also, collectively, as weak as our lowest-performing students – in other words – we can really also ONLY be as strong as our weakest student. It is incumbent upon each of us as teachers and administrators to reach every student every day, and to go home exhausted- and better – for trying. You should be ready for us to demand that same effort from our students. (And from you as our partners in educating our students.)
We have a long, hard year ahead. I think it will be and should be fun. High school is supposed to be fun. I believe that with every ounce of my teacher and principal being. It should be interesting, and lively. I want your children to be happy about coming here, I am. But also, at time, high school can and should be hard. The good work usually is.
I ask, today, that you are ready to do the hard and good work of educating all of our students with me – with us — this year. You have indicated your willingness to do that work by being here tonight, and I thank you for that. So do our teachers.
This year, we begin a second year under a new framework for teacher evaluation and measuring student growth. We endeavor to be successful – in our first pass through state-mandated PARCC testing in grades 9, 10, and 11. We undertake a required year-long Middle States Excellence By Design Self-Study, in preparation for the outside accreditation team that will visit us for three days in October 2015. (There will be much more information coming to you, as Columbia families and community residents, about that Middle States process over the next 12 months.) We have work to do on increasing all of our students’ enrollment in and chances for success in AP courses. We will work to expand our 9th grade study hall model to ensure that all of our students build habits for academic success and social and emotional growth at Columbia. We want to see all of our students participate in at least one extra-curricular activity. Our teachers will continue to learn and execute more differentiated instruction and to recognize the inherent value in the diverse backgrounds and experiences our students bring to school everyday.
Most importantly, please know that we commit to having high expectations for all students every day and all the time, and to building a framework of instruction and opportunities to enable all students and families to meet those expectations.
Ask – no, demand – that your students talk about school every day. Have high expectations for their decision-making, and help them get there. Reach out to teachers by email or phone when you have questions. Tell your students to turn off the phone, and turn on the desk lamp, and do their homework. Ask to SEE their homework. Talk about what they are reading, learning, and doing in school. If they – or you – need help, make sure you ask for it. If they are ready to be challenged more – make sure they ask for that, too. Your children’s teachers are some of the most important people in their lives, and your communication with them is some of the most important you can have. Showing your children how much you value the work we do is the best way to get them to want to be here, to engage with their teachers, to take school seriously and to be successful.
I will conclude tonight by promising you that we believe that all students are entitled to benefit from and achieve excellence in a Columbia High School in which race, family background, socioeconomic circumstances, or any other characteristic should not and will not determine a student’s experiences in a classroom, on a playing field, in how we manage school discipline, in how policy is implemented, or in how our students experience school and life in our building every day.
We are glad that your children are here. Thank you for everything you will do to make their life as a Cougar student all that it should be. Have a wonderful evening.