Maplewood Opinion Schools / Kids South Orange Towns

Op-Ed: South Orange-Maplewood School District Discriminatory Practices Must End Now

The following letter was sent to South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education President Wayne Eastman by Walter Fields of the SOMA Parents of Students of African Descent Workshop. It is published here at Mr. Fields’ request.

Dear Mr. Eastman:

I am writing to express my grave concern over the continuation of practices by the South Orange Maplewood School District that are contrary to the spirit and intent of the Resolution Agreement the district signed with the United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR). As has been established by OCR, the SOMA school district has maintained racial disparities in student access to Advanced Placement (AP) courses that run afoul of provisions in federal civil rights law; namely Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This pattern of exclusionary practices in the South Orange Maplewood School District has persisted for well over a decade and were egregious enough for the district to be targeted by OCR in an initial investigation of a cohort of school districts across the nation that have been cited for maintaining segregated environments within their school buildings. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been explicit in defining these practices as betraying the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the United States Supreme Court.

The district continues to use ‘qualifying’ tests and the subjective recommendations of teachers to determine which students will be allowed to enroll in AP classes. These practices are continued though the Board is well aware of the racial complexion of these classes. Such devices are akin to the deliberate impediments, such as literacy tests and the poll tax, that were employed by southern states to deny Black citizens their constitutional right to vote during the Jim Crow era. Similar to disfranchised Black citizens being denied their constitutional rights, the Black students in our district are being purposely obstructed from their right to full access to the district’s curriculum and denied their state constitutional right to a “thorough and efficient” education. You are also offending our rights as taxpayers by using our tax dollars to offer classes that you then deny our children access to by placing barriers to their enrollment.

Moreover, the interim report of the Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in New Jersey cited the general perception that there is an excessive reliance on school administered quizzes and tests in public schools in our state. Among the Commission’s recommendations are the items below:

2. Each school district should establish its own comprehensive vision for school district testing and how each test relates to an important learning or strategic objective.

4. Each school district should conduct a thorough inventory and analysis of its local assessment system: (a) to determine which tests and assessments are being administered o students; (b) to determine the minimum testing necessary to serve diagnostic, instructional, and accountability purposes; (c) to ensure every test and assessment is of high quality; (d) to ensure every test and assessment is providing the information needed for specific school district and school purposes; and (e) to ensure every test and assessment is supported by structures and routines so that assessment results are effectively used to improve student learning.

The ‘qualifying’ tests used to determine AP access serve no learning purpose but are in place to exclude students. These tests should be ceased immediately.

You can end this practice today. All students should have the right to enroll in AP courses and that access should be unencumbered by artificial barriers and bias. You do not require a consultant to advise you of the wrongfulness of this practice. The Board has the authority to change this policy immediately. The real question is whether the Board has the will and the moral courage to do so. Your continued failure to do so compels me to explore all of our options for litigation under the New Jersey Constitution and federal civil rights law, and making such claims in an expedited manner. It is clear that these practices contribute to the maintenance of nearly all-white AP classes in Columbia High School.

You can and should open access to AP classes to all students, and open access now. There is absolutely no acceptable excuse to not do so. And Black students who have shown academic potential should be actively recruited to enroll in these classes, and given the requisite support to facilitate their success. If you continue to maintain the present ‘screening’ process you are acknowledging your intent to preserve the status quo. If that is the position of this Board it becomes paramount that we have this issue adjudicated.

I also share the concern that many other parents have raised over the state of mathematics instruction in our district; though my focus remains on racial disparities in student access and achievement. And let me be clear, I perceive the issues in mathematics to stem from leadership failure. The Board has allowed the department to be managed in a way that has suppressed Black student engagement in the most challenging mathematics courses; the very course progression that colleges deem most desirable for students seeking admission. And the very classes that are now designated as evidence of “college readiness.” By allowing the department to create the illusion of ‘rigor’ by the use of exclusionary practices that discourage Black students enrollment, discourages their pursuit of advanced level classes and weeds out capable Black students, and then artificially inflates AP exam pass rates, this district is complicit in the discriminatory treatment of Black students.

We do not have a rigorous mathematics experience in our district. What we have is mathematics instruction on steroids; made artificially restrictive by the use of over-testing, inadequate support, and a homework tsunami that betrays student preparedness. This environment persists due to the Board’s surrender of policy authority to a department chair.

This is quite evident in the department’s ‘policy’ of not returning completed quizzes and tests to students. It is an asinine policy that works against student progress. It is clear to me that the department is functioning to serve a narrow band of students; very capable students who would excel in any environment but whose performance allows the department to claim ‘success.’ All other students, many of them capable of excelling, are subjected to a ‘sink or swim’ attitude conveyed by departmental leadership. When the department chair reveals to me that her goal is to emulate the Millburn and Livingston school districts, two districts demographically dissimilar to the South Orange Maplewood School district as night is to day, it reveals a real bias or a painful ignorance.

As is the case of AP access, the Board has the authority to make policy to alleviate the inequities in mathematics instruction right now. It presents another opportunity for this Board to take responsibility and implement corrective action. Yet, what I observe is a Board that has been made aware of these issues but is paralyzed by inaction. It leads me to believe that absent litigation we will never see this Board take affirmative action to fundamentally change this school district.

The hiring of a consultant per the Resolution Agreement does not absolve the district of its responsibility to take corrective action to remedy the identified disparities where possible. It is unacceptable to put the weight of change on the shoulders of a contractor when you have the authority, right now, to institute policies, as you were elected to do so, to eliminate practices harmful to students and deployed in a manner that violate federal and state law. In fact, it is a dereliction of duty to acknowledge that these disparities exist, possess the authority to address them, and then use a federal agency that identified the offenses as cover to move with deliberate indifference to correct them.

It is insufficient to hold up the de-leveling of the middle schools as evidence of the district’s sincerity to remedy discriminatory practices, when, in fact, tracking persists as is evidenced by the dearth of Black students in advanced Honors (Level 5) and AP classes in Columbia High School. In fact, had you been truly committed to eliminating racial disparities across the district the Board would have moved with haste to de-track Columbia High School. This piecemeal approach to equity and justice has denied thousands of Black students in this school district the opportunity of a comparable education to their white peers, and placed their academic experience at odds with 21st century best practices. The district has, in fact, operated two school systems; a public school district in which Black students overwhelmingly receive a lower-tier educational experience and a private district using public tax dollars reserved for a narrow band of white students who get the benefit of the most desired course offerings. Truthfully, many white students have also been harmed by the exclusionary practices that weigh heavily upon Black student success.

Furthermore, the administrative staff and at least half of the present Board of Education have been in place during the period in which these racial disparities widened. Members were well aware of the harmful impact of policies choices that were made; the tracking of students that resulted in segregated classes, the discretion given department chairs to place students in advanced level courses, the lack of support given Black students in Columbia High School to enroll in Advanced Placement courses and the use of ‘qualifying’ criteria for AP access that whitewashed these classes in a high school where Black students are now the majority. And Members have been privy to the data that made plain the district’s failure in this regard. This happened on the watch of present Members and staff, and all of you ultimately bear responsibility to repair the damage inflicted by decisions, choices that were made under your authority. Our focus now turns to accountability and holding each of you responsible for the conditions under which Black students are disproportionately excluded from opportunity in the South Orange Maplewood School District.

We have always given this district the benefit of the doubt; hoping against evidence that the mangled outcomes of Black student achievement were the unintended consequence of bad policy. However, in public comments, in management decisions and in policy, intent is becoming evident. Likewise, we have also grown exhausted by the district’s response that ‘these things take time to fix.’ No, they take the will and courage. This district has had sufficient time to address these matters. It is now time for action. The concessions we have granted in the past can no longer be offered this district. Do not misinterpret our willingness to work with this district, as we have exhibited in many ways, as an indication of our hesitancy or our lack of will to use every conceivable legal avenue to end discriminatory practices and bring this district in compliance with civil rights law.

We remain supportive of the South Orange Maplewood School District but principally committed to the educational success and futures of Black children in our two communities.

Sincerely,

Walter Fields

Convener

SOMA Black Parents Workshop

Editor’s note: This letter has been amended to remove personal references and conversations.

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