Maplewood Schools / Kids South Orange

New SOMSD Superintendent Taylor Talks Schools Inequality, SROs and Top Priorities

In his first official introduction to the community, new South Orange-Maplewood School District Superintendent Dr. Ronald Taylor cast himself as a hands-on, data-driven educator intent on increasing interaction with the community to address a broad range of issues throughout the district.

The Board of Education selected Taylor in April, after culling the field of 37 candidates down to seven finalists. Taylor, who is interrupting a four-year contract as superintendent of the Willingboro (NJ) Township Public Schools to take the job in South Orange-Maplewood, is scheduled to begin July 8. He will replace Interim Superintendent Thomas Ficarra.

Accompanied by his wife, Lisa, Taylor visited the Columbia High School library Tuesday night for a meet-and-greet event. Personable and seeming to connect with the audience, Taylor wrote down multi-part questions as they were being asked, and was eager to communicate as completely and openly as possible. He noted that while he is responsive, his replies won’t always mean that everyone will like what he has to say.

The School Lunch Controversy

Community members who came to meet Taylor pulled no punches, with the first question — from Kelly Piccola of SOMA Justice — seeking clarification about a controversial school lunch policy at Willingboro in 2013 and whether it would be implemented locally.

“First of all, great question, and not a tough question — a good question,” Taylor replied, adding that the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education did “a great job of vetting that particular question.”

Taylor explained that the Willingboro Board of Education “saw an issue where our vendor for our school lunches was backcharging the board because there were so many students who were not filling out their free and reduced lunch applications.” The board, he said, decided to change the policy. “My job was to take that policy and make it so that no students lost lunches.”

Taylor said that he and his staff worked to alert parents and students when their account balances were low, also proactively putting out the word about free and reduced lunch applications. Since then, no students were denied lunches, he said.

“As a matter of fact, the State of New Jersey adopted our mechanisms and made it a part of their directives in dealing with this issue,” Taylor added.

Addressing Inequality

Citing a ProPublica investigation into racial inequality at schools across the United States — and an interactive database that includes SOMSD — Rhea Beck asked Taylor how he would address disparities in school suspensions and the achievement gap within the district.

Taylor said that it was “not respectful” to propose solutions without digging into the specifics of the school district’s data, though “it is obviously disturbing to see any patterns of inequalities.”

Critical to forming a plan, Taylor said, is to “backwards map the information” and to understand the underlying trends, adding that it was important to consider restorative justice and professional development. Recognizing that “most districts have an equity plan,” he said it was necessary to know “what type of corrective action has been put in place.”

“You almost have to backwards-map it to a granular level. My skill set and data review goes in that manner,” he said. “We say, ‘What gets monitored, gets done.’”

Taylor also said he was “highly committed” to the issue of staff diversity, noting his past efforts to recruit educators at traditionally black institutions including Miles College and his own alma mater, Morehouse College.

“It’s just like any problem,” he said. “The first step is admitting that you have a problem.”

Data, Taylor added, can be used to track success in this area.

No ‘Haphazard Decision’ on SROs

In response to a question that cited research around the effects of school resource officers (SROs), Taylor said that he has seen a variety of ways in which schools have used them.

“In my experience, SROs are usually a partnership with the community,” he said, adding that he has seen police department assign an officer on an as-needed basis, while some work with security staff. “And I’ve also seen where SROs are poor quality, where they’ve done more harm than good.”

Taylor acknowledged research around safety concerns, particularly for students of color, and said that he didn’t know the district well enough to make a recommendation.

“It would not be a haphazard decision,” he said. “No one is taking that as a light issue. I believe that not everything is a fit in every place.”

A ‘Responsive’ Track Record

While Taylor wouldn’t specify what kind of office hours he would keep to hear community concerns, he said that he would emphasize communication.

“I can tell you what I do now: I pride myself on being responsive,” he said. “If anyone comes to the office to see me, if I’m available, I’m available to speak with them.”

Taylor also emphasized respect for the chain of command for complaints of concerns, suggesting that parents who might be upset with the leadership of a school first speak with the principal.

Asked whether he would be available for appointments with concerned parties, Taylor was clear: “Definitely.”

A ‘Data-Driven’ Approach

In his opening remarks, Taylor said he saw himself as a “servant leader” whose job included “removing all obstacles to the educators.”

“I also believe in shared leadership,” he said. “I do not believe in top-down management. I would never, never make major top-down decisions for a community that has 8,000 students.”

Taylor also said that his personal approach was in making decisions backed up by hard data.

“My personal instructional beliefs start with our decisions being research based,” he said. “I don’t believe in experimentation. I don’t believe in allowing folks to come into our district and try things that that don’t have a base in research, quality research.”

“I want to see the evidence that shows that we are successful,” he said. “I want to see the evidence that’s behind the decision that’s being recommended.”

He added that the “best part” of the hiring process was interviewing with high school students. “We have to include our students in some of these very important decisions that we are making. They have so much to give.”

Citing the work of Stanford University psychologist and “growth mindset” researcher Carol Dweck, Taylor also touted the benefits of overcoming challenges.

“I also believe that as educators, we undervalue effort,” he said. “We sometimes believe too much in talent and not enough in grit and effort.”

Technology in the Classroom

At Willingboro Township Public Schools, Taylor implemented a one-to-one adoption of Chromebooks for students — and he advocated training for both students and teachers on using them responsibly.

“The first step in dealing with technology in the classroom is research,” he said. “I want to find places that are similar to us that have had success as examples of what we want to do.”

Taylor said he would like to research “ways to protect students, not just block things that they shouldn’t be seeing,” and he suggested monitoring software that would alert school officials when students enter something into their laptops that poses “a danger for their classmates and others.”

Teacher training was also a part of the equation, he said. “My philosophy is, again, that I want to give our instructors tools of innovation, but they are the greatest tool of innovation.”

Taylor’s Top Three Goals

Taylor broadly identified his top three priorities.

First, he wanted to improve communication throughout the district, engaging stakeholders to help spread the positive aspects of SOMA schools.

“I don’t think we can communicate enough,” he said, proposing that he would like to address concerns raised during the public speaks portion of the monthly Board of Education meetings. “If the BOE allows me to do that, I want to be able to respond on the spot.”

Next, Taylor said he wanted to “bring closure” to plans regarding construction and reorganization “maybe not next year or maybe not even the following year.”

Last month, the SOMSD integration plan and facilities work laid out in the $140 million Long Range Facilities Plan was postponed until September 2021.

Taylor noted that he has previously shepherded a $70 million construction referendum project to completion.

Third, he said he wanted to “make sure we’re ready to open school” in a smooth and orderly fashion in September — a task that requires working through the summer to ensure that key staff positions are filled and the district’s priorities are shared by all its members. “I don’t want to deal with chaos.”

Acknowledging recent changes in leadership throughout the district and the need to fill vacant and interim positions, Taylor said, “Stability is extremely important. We’re not going to wait until my first day to begin that process, but I want to be part of that process.”

Why SOMSD?

Taylor said that he was “kind of stunned” whenever he was asked why he was interested in leading the South Orange-Maplewood School District.

“Do you know what the view of you is from the outside?” he asked. “It’s great. It’s a super desirable place to go to school.”

Taylor said that part of his job would be to “arm you with why we are great” by providing that “positive information” to share with others.

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