Op-Ed: Seth Boyden Needs Equitable Funding to Continue Its Success

by The Village Green
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The following letter was read by Amelia Nickles on behalf of the Seth Boyden Demonstration School PTA at the Feb. 2, 2015 South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education meeting.

Good evening members of the board, and Superintendent Memoli,

I am here as a parent at Seth Boyden, representing many PTA members and families from our school. We come before you as we did in November because we are still seeking a response from the Board and Administration to the needs we have placed before you.

Let me start by saying that Seth Boyden was not and is not a school in crisis. It is a wonderful place for all children and we are so very proud of our teachers, our staff, our school administrators, our children and our families. Our school’s test scores, when broken down by cohort, are equal to and in many cases better than those of the other elementary schools in the district. The school is an orderly, organized and well-run learning environment. The culture is one where each student is accepted for who he or she is and is encouraged to be his or her best self and best learner. Because we have such spacious grounds and unique playground structures, the children can play outside at recess the way children are meant to do. Seth Boyden is a school to which we are happy and proud to send our children.

Seth Boyden Harvest Fest 2014. Credit Caryn Rosenberg

Seth Boyden Harvest Fest 2014. Credit Caryn Rosenberg

As we all now know, Seth Boyden educates a much higher percentage of children who qualify for free and reduced lunch than any other school in the district. It is an established fact that there is a correlation between economic standing and educational preparedness, which means more children in our school than elsewhere need additional resources to succeed, at school and in the world. It also stands to reason that our PTA has less money than most. This is a double whammy. We have less money, and yet our children depend more heavily on the extras we can give them: subsidized field trips, cultural assemblies, free books, to name a few.

A funding system that doesn’t recognize the inherent inequality between a school such as ours and its neighbors only a few miles away is simply unjust. True equity for all elementary age children in South Orange and Maplewood would mean that each one of them is provided with an equal opportunity to learn, equal access to technology, equal opportunity to experience the world, and an equal chance to succeed. However, this necessarily means that district funding follows the need of the child and is not simply distributed like even slices of a pie. A larger piece should be given to the child who is hungry.

In early November we met with the administration, asking for additional funding to help us bridge some of these inequities, as well as to help Seth Boyden reclaim its place as the district’s “demonstration school”. Our initial funding requests are relatively modest.

Nevertheless, the PTA Leadership believes that, at least in the short term, these funds will be enough to provide some of what our children need while also drawing additional opt-in students to the school, increasing the school’s socio-economic diversity, and bringing the free and reduced lunch rate more in line with the district’s other elementary schools.

Since November, administrators have met several times with our teachers and allocated to Seth Boyden an additional reading specialist, and we are grateful for these steps. But on the issue of additional funding, there has been silence. And now time is of the essence.

Registration is about to open, and we have nothing to tell potential opt-in parents about the new initiatives at the school and why Seth Boyden remains the district’s “demonstration school.” Instead, people have been scared by the numbers you yourselves made public in December, coupled with a tone that seemed to suggest that Seth Boyden was a failing school.

Let me repeat. Seth Boyden is not in crisis and is not failing. It is a vibrant, cohesive community of learners and parents. The “problem” we are here to address is not the children of Seth Boyden. It is not the administration or the teachers of Seth Boyden. The “problem” we are here to address is Seth Boyden’s need for additional funding from the district so that our students can enjoy the same advantages as every other elementary age student in the district. Without this money, we are compelled to rely heavily upon voluntary donations from parents and others — donations that vary from year to year, that can dry up at any time, and that can be much harder to come by given the larger percentage of economically disadvantaged families at the school. This is a matter of equity and equality. Our school’s needs are greater, our funding should be greater.

Funding should follow need.

So immediately and publicly we ask for the additional money we have outlined to administrators. By this meeting or next. It simply is not feasible to tread water while you decide what the future ought to hold. To do nothing is to allow the school to slide inexorably down a path no one wants. The only way to create equity in funding is to place resources where they are needed most. Currently, that is at Seth Boyden. At some time in the future, it may be at one of the other schools. But right now, it is at Seth Boyden. Equity also necessitates that the families that are zoned for Seth Boyden have some choice in their school, as does the rest of the district.

We also ask for a voice moving forward. We understand the future of Seth Boyden deserves a deeper and more meaningful discussion. We also believe the best option for the District is to keep Seth Boyden a viable and attractive option for Maplewood and South Orange families. It benefits us all to have a school where innovative teaching practices are responsibly implemented before being spread to the entire district. This demonstration role—rather than a particular subject matter or trendy teaching method—is what we think the school should focus on, and there are many ways that can be done.

We care about the future of Seth Boyden, and we are filled with ideas and a passion for our school that we would like to share. The creation of Seth Boyden as a Demonstration School all those years ago was an elegant solution to a thorny problem: giving the district educational distinction and parents a choice, without having to resort to rezoning, or allowing de-facto racial and socio-economic segregation to blossom. But it also is, and was, a fragile calculus. And if it fails we will be left with options no one wants.

So right now, in this moment, we need to do the right thing. If we as a community fail to provide equity in our schools, we have failed all of our children. And to remedy our own failures, we will have to engage in a large scale re-zoning, or confront an education system that is separate and unequal, a system that is morally wrong and legally unacceptable. For those of us who love and value our homes and schools in Maplewood and South Orange, because of our great diversity and all that these communities have to offer, it is time to stand up and say yes to equity in our schools and an equal education for all children regardless of their circumstances.

Thank you.

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