All those emails and robo-calls paid off: Parents, teachers, taxpayers and students turned out in droves tonight to attend the South Orange-Maplewood School District’s Education Summit. The district estimated the crowd at 1,500.
As stated in the evening’s program, the summit was designed to “define the future of our school district and its schools; to reimagine education in this community.”
Indeed, “reimagining” and “imagine” were key words of the night, figuring their way into the topic headings of many of the dozens of breakout sessions and playing over the sound system as participants streamed into the Columbia High School auditorium to the strains of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Ramos asked participants to “think outside the box” and imagine a new education format to replace the outmoded system now in use that was developed for the “agrarian and industrial” ages.
Ramos also promised that the results of the sessions “will not be some plan that sits on a shelf and collects dust” but an actionable strategic plan.
“For every strategy, there will be an action plan,” Ramos told the crowded auditorium. He also noted that the summit was “just a beginning” — and would be followed by a “30-day window” during which the conversations would continue through technology.
Ramos also asked participants to engage in “active listening” and work toward “synergy” during the sessions. Ramos spoke of the country’s founding fathers, saying, “When they walked away from the document, they weren’t all happy, but it was one they could all live with,” speaking of the Constitution. He said that he hoped parents in the district would come away from the session and whatever school district changes may develop out of it with the same feeling. He quoted Stephen Covey, who wrote 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, as guidance towards how the forums should go. “Seek first to understand, then be understood.”
Ramos also referred to the large turnout, saying “Look at us — hundreds strong!” He concluded, “Imagine what a roomful of smart, dedicated people can come up with! I’ve been imagining it for awhile.”
The auditorium-based crowd then broke off into smaller classroom sessions, several of which had overflow into secondary classrooms. While some parents expressed outward enthusiasm over Ramos’ effort to hold a convening of ideas (the superintendent was warmly applauded), others were frustrated at having to choose between so many topics. The latter group was concerned that an excess of subjects might dilute the focus of the evening, and left parents conflicted about what sessions to attend when they may have had more than one area of interest.
In the breakout sessions, moderators were tasked with gathering ideas during a 25-minute brainstorming session, selecting 3-5 ideas and focusing on those ideas to create “suggestions, new approaches and action items.”
At the Access & Equity session, moderator Walter Fields needed to remind participants several times that the forum was not for asking questions about the district (although Fields gamely worked to explain the new Access & Equity policy recently adopted by the district), but an opportunity to dream about “what could be.”
“This is our opportunity to provide input on what that policy can look like in implementation,” said Fields.
The nearly 50 Access & Equity participants discussed a need for earlier guidance counseling for high school students, tutoring for those opting into AP classes, teaching children to the highest level in early grades, more transparency around early education reading groups, more information on prerequisite courses need for AP and other courses, and more.
Ultimately the five issues for Access & Equity boiled down to the broad headings of communication, placement, pipeline, support and differentiated instruction.
At the “Reimagining Seth Boyden Demonstration School” session, the group, led by moderator Peri Smilow, created an exhaustive list of 33 items to vote on. The top four selected for further discussion were: parity in funding and concurrent adequate staffing; adopting a STEAM [Science Technology Engineering Arts Mathematics] curriculum; funding evening programs; and making the school a community center for the surrounding neighborhood. Fifth place was tied between three items all of which reinforced the STEAM focus and also included a focus on the school’s celebrated outdoor space and garden.
At the “Reimagining the High School Experience” session, participants discussed scheduling, smaller learning communities, experiential learning and more. The session, like many others, was very well attended with good engaged conversations.
At the “Gifted & Talented” session, the forum, moderated by Clinton School Media Specialist Jennifer Latimer, touched on such issues as: the ending of math and language arts in enrichment, should G & T be inclusive or exclusive, and what is the criteria? How do we identify kids? Is there a standard definition of gifted, or is it a moving target? Are there gifted study-abroad programs, and how do we address the needs of and support twice-exceptional children?
In the session “Deep Engagement and Exhilarating Experiences of the Whole Student in Their Learning,” participants talked about how to engage students and provide rigor. “It’s the how more than they why,” said one parent. There was also a discussion about project based learning. Participants discussed how to engage students and give them autonomy and choice. One parent questioned the language: “Choice at every level — is it just a buzzword? What does it mean?” The group also discussed empowering teachers: The teachers in the group said their number one constraint is lack of time.
Throughout the school Superintendent Ramos could be seen visiting classrooms and appearing to listen intently.
As the evening wound down, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum Susan Grierson and CHS Principal Elizabeth Aaron both expressed satisfaction with the evening and excitement about next steps.
Find a full list of session topics and the ground rules for the summit here.
VillageGreenNJ.com will update this article with information on how to continue the conversation when that information is made available.
Click on any photo below to see a slideshow of images from the evening.