Maplewood Schools / Kids South Orange

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

Two years after the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education passed a sweeping Access & Equity policy designed to end years of institutionalized racism and address complaints that children of color are disproportionately steered into lower level classes, little meaningful progress has been made.

That was the conclusion at Monday’s Board of Education meeting, when the administration presented the results of a report that broke down student participation in different level classes by race. While there were a few gains – in pre-Calculus, Physics and chemistry – black students in middle and high school still overwhelmingly lag behind their white peers in enrollment in Honors and Advanced English Language Arts, Social Studies and Biology, among other subjects.

On the other hand, enrollment of white students has grown in many upper level classes.

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In laying out the numerous, specific data points, Supt. Dr. Thomas Ficarra, Asst. Supt for Administration Kevin Walston and Dir. of Planning and Assessment Dr. Kalisha Morgan were detailed, measured and almost dispassionate in their delivery.

Board of Education members were anything but. Calling the results “terrible,” “mind-boggling,” “appalling” and “unconscionable,” the members expressed deep anger, frustration and sadness. Some were visibly emotional.

“We cannot continue to live like this,” said First VP Chris Sabin. “We have to do better by everybody.” This is just…terrible,” he said.

“I hope this opens everyone’s eyes to the issues of inequity and discrepancies we face,” said Maureen Jones. “One cannot look at this data and say that students of color have to pull themselves up by the bootstraps…we’re seeing the big picture right in front of our eyes.”

She continued, “What kind of message are we sending to our students of color?”

“What kind of message are we sending to all our students?” asked Susie Adamson. “It’s just unconscionable, the lack of progress that we have made.”

“Our children are fighting, they want to move up,” said Johanna Wright. “The community should be ashamed, the [BOE] should be ashamed, the educators should be ashamed…we are failing our kids.”

In 2014, the district was sued by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, which alleged that because of its academic tracking, SOMSD was in violation of state law. In response, the district agreed to follow eight action steps, which included addressing its academic placement process, family/student outreach and staff training.

SOMSD initially hired Sage Consultants to review and assess the district and its progress. The contract was for three years; after one year the district told Sage to stop its work.

In 2015 the BOE adopted the Access & Equity policy, which allows students in every grade to choose their own levels in all subjects, without needing to rely on test scores or teacher recommendations or other “gatekeeping” methods. Shortly after, the district’s Academic placement policy was revised to align with the A&E policy.

Wright and Sabin questioned why the district did not retain Sage after the initial first year, and placed at least some of the blame for the results on the failure to follow the OCR’s recommendations.

The report pointed to the following as areas of special concern:

  • Black students are not increasing participation in accelerated math from 5th to 6th grade at the same rate as white students
  • High School ELA 9: less than 50% of Black students are in honors, compared to 90% of White students. A similar gap continues in grade 10.
  • Grade 9 Biology: 36.3% of Black students are in honors, compared to 89.1% of White students.

Dr. Ficarra said next steps include reassessing the current leveling structure (and eliminating “hyperleveling” or having multiple levels for one subject); actively recruiting and encouraging black students to enroll in higher level courses; identifying and dismantling barriers to access, including the digital divide; better use of data to inform classroom instruction, and expanding programs such as MAC Scholars.

“We have to make sure we are providing students at a very young age with the skills necessary…to enable them to access the programs and feel comfortable in them,” he said.

Specifically, Ficarra said he would look at addressing the following areas, and eliminating some of these levels:

  • Math placement for 5th graders going into 6th
  • All Level 2 Math courses
  • All levels in Pre-Calculus
  • Levels in 9th grade Biology and World History
  • Review effectiveness of 2017-2018 pilot of eliminating Algebra 1 Level 2 in 9th

Walter Fields of the Black Parents Workshop said the board’s “moral compass is broken” and decried 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.”

Jones said the data show that black students are capable but the district needs to provide more opportunity for them to access higher levels. “…what kind of message are we sending our students of color? Imagine walking into a classroom where every day there can be some kind of preconceived notion about you. What does that do about your learning…to your motivation?”

Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad said the district’s practice of hyperleveling was deliberate and was not common practice among other schools districts. “This [report] should not be surprising because you don’t pass a policy and then wipe away the underlying environment that allows us to exist the way we do.”

Madhu Pai said that there were gains — albeit small ones — and called the results “a mixed bag.” She emphasized that the achievement gap must be addressed in the early years of a student’s schooling. “We’re not making students feel confident in their abilities…because we haven’t given them what they need.”

Annemarie Maini took issue with Pai’s assertion of gains and pointed to the especially stark disparities in 9th grade biology. “In 8th grade, every single child is in the same course; then we are recommending that 91% of white students are capable of biology honors but 70% of black students are only prepared for College Prep biology. That’s not on the students, that’s on us. This is what institutional racism [looks like].”

Donna Smith said she was glad to see Dr. Ficarra wanted to end Level 2 courses. “It’s a path to nowhere. It’s time to just get rid of that.”

Board President Elizabeth Baker said there needed to be a priority on addressing the economic barriers to access, noting that some of the district’s success and reputation was due to the ability of some parents to pay for private tutoring. She emphasized focusing on academic supports for all students, including extended library hours, access to computers, summer school, etc.

“We’re not doing our job, and we’re not doing right by the children who don’t have access to private tutors, and parents shouldn’t be required to hire a private tutor to ensure their children get the quality education they deserve,” said Baker.

Susie Adamson called the data “mind-boggling” and “appalling.” While she disagreed with Fields’ contention that the board’s moral compass was broken, she conceded that it lacked a proper action plan. “The access and equity plan gave access but not necessarily to the right people. A lot more white students are taking higher level classes which is terrific but not the point of the policy.”

Noting Jones’s earlier comment, she said, “What kind of message are we sending to all our students? It’s just unconscionable, the lack of progress that we have made.”

Wright urged people to look at raw numbers to get a true sense of the disparity. For instance, in Grade 10 Pre Calculus there are 54 white students and just six black students.

“But there is hope,” said Wright. “Dr. Ficarra has great experience in this area and I am confident he will be able to get us on the right track.”

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