Parents are voicing concerns about a spate of midyear changes at Montrose School — including the appointment of four teachers to replace four others in a small school of only 10 (now growing to 11) teachers.
Montrose parents told Village Green that they have contacted the South Orange-Maplewood School District administration with emails expressing their concerns about the qualifications of the new teachers, the amount of disruptions to the classrooms through programming and staffing changes this year, the quality of administration of and communication about the changes, and an environment of fear and anxiety at the school. Overall, parents said they felt that the large amount of turnover and other changes are having a negative impact on the young students in the school.
Montrose School houses SOMSD’s preschool program and has a high percentage of special education students.
Parents expressed concern last year when Bonita Samuels was appointed Principal, replacing Renee Joyce, the founding Director of the Montrose Early Childhood Center. Samuels came to Montrose after having been placed on reassignment from her position as Principal of Marshall School where she was alleged to have texted a photo ridiculing an assistant teacher who is a small person.
Montrose parents also expressed concerns last fall when it was announced that SOMSD was the recipient of a large grant to expand preschool and that Montrose would be seeing rapid growth. (Read more about the grant here.) Parents noted some of the changes that were implemented last fall for the grant were scaled back after parents spoke up.
A letter from Principal Bonita Samuels dated Thursday, January 3, 2019, announcing the personnel changes — as well as the opening of one new classroom — escalated concerns for many parents, according emails sent to Village Green and phone conversations conducted by Village Green.
The letter states that, while one classroom teacher will be moving into an Assistant to the Principal role, another teacher is leaving for “personal reasons,” another is on leave, and another is departing the district on January 11. Of the four classrooms losing their initial 2018-19 teachers, two will be led by substitute teachers until March 4. An additional paraprofessional will join one of the classes with the replacement teacher on January 14. See Ms. Samuels’ full January 3 letter below.
In addition, although not directly mentioned in Ms. Samuels’ letter, the school’s secretary will be retiring in February (see attached resolution).
Parents immediately expressed concerns about the many changes in classroom leadership and the quality of replacement teachers. One parent wrote to Village Green that the replacement teacher for her child’s class was not a comparable teacher replacement and expressed doubts that the children with special needs in an inclusion classroom would have their IEPs implemented correctly without a teacher who was well-versed in special education.
Ms. Samuels sent a second letter to parents and guardians on January 7 explaining that the appointments could not be shared until that had been approved by the Board of Education on Jan. 3 and assuring parents that “students continue to be provided with the same high quality instruction that characterizes the District’s PreK Program.” See the full letter below.
Parents who reached out to Village Green asked that their names not be used in the story as they said that they fear retaliation. Parents said that they and teachers felt that submitting complaints about Ms. Samuels’ leadership was a futile because of tenure.
Overall, Village Green was contacted by several parents who all described an atmosphere at Montrose where teachers seemed fearful of the principal and a formerly warm and inviting school environment was disintegrating as staff were either leaving or looking to leave. None wished to be quoted directly for fear of reprisals.
Asked to comment, the district spokeswoman Suzanne Turner said that the district could not comment on personnel issues but that a communication would be sent out later today addressing replacement teacher certifications and qualifications.
Letter from Principal Bonita Samuels of January 3, 2019:
January 3, 2019
Greetings Montrose Families,
Happy New Year!
I hope that the recent break has allowed you and your family to enjoy more quality time than usual. The students have returned excited, and are right back in their routines.
As we start the New Year, Montrose will have many new beginnings. I want you all to be aware of the plans and staffing as we move forward.
I am excited that we have opened a new class! On January 2, we welcomed additional preschoolers to our amazing community. The class is located at Marshall School and will be taught by Ms. Lataeyah Lane-Mega. Ms. Lane will begin with us on Monday, January 14. Ms. Lane brings experience as a parent liaison, paraprofessional and preschool teacher. Her passion for culturally responsive educational experiences is aligned with our community’s vision and commitment to understanding and celebrating our diversity.
Mrs. Karen Leary will be moving into an Assistant to the Principal position on January 14. This teacher leadership position will enable her to provide support to my office, teachers and the family community. Ms. Karen’s focus will be on professional development, the classroom/community connection and assisting me with working through the implementation of the Preschool Education Expansion Aid grant. Mrs. Leary’s experiences in the district, as well as her knowledge of child development and the Tools curriculum, will be invaluable as the preschool continues to grow.
Mrs. Leary’s class will be taught by a substitute teacher until Ms. Stacey Field, an experienced early childhood educator, joins us no later than March 4, 2019. Ms. Field has extensive experience in early childhood and has previously taught preschool using the Tools of the Mind Curriculum. Ms. Field uses Universal Design for Learning, which encompasses incorporating various learning styles and abilities along with student preferences.
Mrs. Ann Lombardo has resigned for personal reasons. She will be replaced by Ms. Jasmine Vargas, who will be starting with us on Friday, January 4, 2019. Ms. Vargas joins us with a BA in History and Early Childhood as well as Preschool – Grade 3 certification. Ms. Vargas’ energy, passion and genuine enjoyment of children will be an asset to the Montrose School community.
Mrs. Janice Marchak is on leave as of Monday, January 7. Ms. Kelly Donovan will be this class’ new teacher. Ms. Donovan is scheduled to join the Montrose staff on March 4, 2019. Ms. Donovan has experiences teaching General Education and Special Education. Her knowledge of developmentally appropriate teaching is an asset to us. Between now and early March, the class will be taught by a qualified substitute teacher.
Mrs. Becky Zambrano will be with us until January 11. Beginning Monday, January 14, this class will be taught by “Ms. Lisa” Padula who is a certified teacher with experience in early childhood, both as a paraprofessional and teacher. Ms. Lisa will provide consistency and high expectations for the students in her class. An additional paraprofessional will join the class to take on Ms. Lisa’s current responsibilities.
Please join me in congratulating staff and wishing everyone well. A “Meet and Greet” with each new teacher will be scheduled for individual classes.
As Montrose continues to grow, I assure you that your children come first with every decision made. Making certain that we are meeting the requirements of high-quality preschool programming, curriculum implementation, and high-level educational experiences while creating a genuine enjoyment for learning and professional collaboration are my priority. In the coming weeks, you will receive updates on some of the school’s recent accomplishments and our vision for the near future. Always know that if you have concerns, questions, compliments or suggestions you can email me. Your voice matters.
Have a wonderful day and an awesome 2019!
Letter from Bonita Samuels dated January 7, 2019:
Subject: Clarification on Announcements
Greetings Montrose Families!
Thank you to those of you who have shared feedback in response to my email on January 3, 2019. I understand some families have concerns about the number of staffing changes, so I am reaching out to clarify.
The changes were prompted by personal decisions by individual Montrose staff members, and by the creation of two new positions (Assistant to the Principal and lead teacher for another PreK section at Marshall). While the district tries to provide information on staffing changes in a timely manner, these new assignments could not be publicly announced until the Board of Education’s official approval was secured on January 3rd.
Please be assured that our students continue to be provided with the same high quality instruction that characterizes the District’s PreK Program. The daily routines established at the beginning of the year continue, as does our commitment to using the Tools of the Mind (TOM) curriculum “to ensure every child becomes a successful learner, developing the underlying cognitive, social and emotional skills needed to reach his or her highest potential.”
Ms. Karen Leary’s new role as Assistant to the Principal is a teacher leadership role, and she will be in and out of classrooms. Ms. Karen will help maintain continuity of instruction in classrooms which are having changes in teaching staff. She will support teachers, model instruction, promote collaboration and data-driven instructional decisions, and lead professional development. Professional growth will be further supported by the ongoing training by a TOM specialist who has been spending time in our classrooms.
Thank you for your ongoing partnership at Montrose!