A small but passionate group of parents attending a series of forums Saturday said they wanted a superintendent with excellent communication skills who would reach out to the community and draw people in.
The parents voiced their opinions in a series of forums set up by the South Orange-Maplewood School District to solicit feedback and input in the search for a new superintendent of schools.
Dr. Leroy Nunery, the consultant leading the session noted that, as of last week, close to 700 responses had been received to an online survey. Nunery also reported that 22 or 23 candidates had thus far applied for the job. He said SOMSD was a place that drew good candidates because it is known as a strong, diverse district with illustrious alums, and a history of “stability for educators.”
At the forum for parents of middle schoolers, a group of 10 parents (which ultimately grew to 14) had many positive comments about the district to start. One mother noted that the climate at Maplewood Middle School had been “energized” by the implementation of the IB — the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme. She said that there was a “positive energy and passion shared by school leadership and teachers.”
Another parent lauded the Model UN program that had grown from “14 kids to more than 40” at MMS. A South Orange Middle School parent talked about how his daughter had been engaged in math and also applauded the health classes and nutrition education. Another parent remarked on the “strong science curriculum” and that the district’s middle schools were “inviting and accepting places” unlike the common reputation of middle school life.
When the conversation turned to criticisms, the major and repeated comments were about communications and “a deep, deep unevenness of teachers in middle school.” Many felt that the late assignment of teachers and teams had to do with this “unevenness” as the district tried to avoid spending a summer haggling with parents who would want different teachers for their children.
One parent commented that the district does well by children with challenges and those who are gifted and talented, but does not do well by those children who are “B students,” saying the district is not “helping them expand to exceptional.”
Parents criticized the situation at SOMS where they say homeroom assignments were posted late. Also, a father said that the process of informing parents of math placements was needlessly confusing and mysterious. “The summer math packet was never communicated,” one mother said, and “the Step-Up programs are very under-communicated.” Many felt that the path to acceleration in math was also very mysterious and hard to navigate. One parent noted that the process must be nearly impossible for parents of ELL students if it is already so difficult for English-speaking parents.
Parents were at odds over whether a new superintendent should have a traditional or nontraditional background: Most wanted a traditional background but were open to some combination.
One parent said she was open to someone who has worked in education but had also switched careers at some point — someone who had business world experience and was “well-rounded.”
Another attendee said she felt that the superintendent needed a strictly educational background to work effectively with the unions. Yet another felt that an education background was important to command the respect of teachers.
All wanted a superintendent with excellent communication skills who would reach out to the community.
One mom noted, “This is a tremendously passionate district. We need a proven, seasoned leader who is a diplomat.” She added, “We need someone practical rather than ideological.”
The final comment came from another mother: “We need a superintendent who rallies the teachers. If teachers feel attacked and not respected, it trickles down in the classroom.”
At the next forum, for parents of Columbia High School students, several parents pointed out that CHS suffers from a perception problem.
One parent asked why so many parents opt out of the system and send their children to private high schools. “Is it a behavior problem?” she asked.
Several current parents said behavior was really not a huge problem at CHS, and that the next superintendent should make a point of “turning around the climate” and making sure the community knows about the positive aspects of the school.
“There was a lot of unnecessary angst,” said one parent of a current sophomore. In fact, his daughter has had an “outstanding” academic and social experience, and has felt support from the administration.
One woman brought up CHS’s aging facilities and said they are not well maintained, despite a very high maintenance budget.
A big topic of conversation was the weakness of the foreign language program in the district. One high school senior said she had taken French for three years but doubted she could carry on a simple conversation in the language. “The level [of instruction] is more like first grade,” she said.
Several people said the next superintendent should make a point of being accessible to the community, and to open up lines of communication with parents. Nunery said the number one issue he had heard about in the forums so far was communication, which is clearly a weak point in the district.
The issue of the achievement gap was raised, and a couple of parents said it was important for a superintendent to have a strategy for narrowing the gap and a “depth of understanding” about its complex causes. Another parent noted that black and white students are treated differently in the district, which is troubling.
Nunery said that a word that had come up in relation to SOMSD was “initiative-itis,” meaning the district in recent years has implemented a high number of new programs without always thinking them through.
However, he said that in contrast to some school districts, SOMSD is at an advantage because of the work that has been done: “You don’t have to turn it around, you have to bring it together,” he said.
Attendees discussed the challenges SOMSD faces in hiring good candidates because of state-mandated salary cap on superintendent salaries and the fact that New Jersey has a high cost of living.
Several people said they were concerned about rushing into hiring someone. “I’d rather leave the position vacant than get the wrong person,” said one woman, echoing what others had said.
Nunery said that the consultant’s report would be delivered to the Board of Education in October and made available to applicants for the job. He said that it would be up to the BOE as to how much of the report would be made public.