The South Orange – Maplewood Board of Education unofficially gave Supt. Dr. John Ramos its imprimatur to move ahead with the first part of the district’s new strategic plan, the course of action that will guide the district through the next three to five years.
Following the Education Summit and the Superintendent’s community “Listening Tour,” 27 community members met for three full days to craft the Strategic Direction document, which among many other things redrafts the district’s values, mission, and strategic boundaries.
See the full document attached here as a PDF:
Ramos took pains to explain how the 27 were selected, out of hundreds of people who could have fit the bill. He said they had to be willing to give three full days of their time, were active in the community, were able to listen and compromise and believed in where the district was headed. The group included teachers, administrators, community activists, current and past board members and a few parents.
Audrey Rowe, who served on the committee and also is Program Director for South Orange/ Maplewood Community Coalition on Race, explained the agenda as “about transformation” wherein the district will become “student-centric.”
Ramos added the need for this plan to “think about what we need to do as a school system to prepare for a future we have yet to imagine” as we move from the industrial era to the information era. Said Ramos, “don’t think outside the box, throw away the box.” He noted though, “that this is one step in the work.”
On the student performance statement, former Board of Education member and Strategic Direction committee member William Guadelli pointed out the plan’s attention to a future of “competency-based learning” and curriculum not “bound by seat time.”
Gaudelli continued, “Ultimately the goal here is that no student fails,” and so people need to imagine a system where students studying algebra can take 6, 16, or 60 weeks to learn the skills they need to move forward. Both board members Madhu Pai and Donna Smith expressed support for the pedagogical goal and philosophy.
Nina Kambili, the student representative to the board who also sat on the committee, pointed to the need to reconcile material concerns, such as adequate cleaning supplies, with a vision for progress. Explained Kambili, “I live down the street from Clinton school…I want (these kids) to go to a school that is clean and safe and where they’re not going to be profiled, but also looks to the future.”
Pai expressed her support again, but further questioned the place of such a progressive take on education when colleges and the workforce have not yet caught up.
Guadelli said this is a transitional period in education, noting that for example, MIT is developing a “Micro-competency” program, but that it is on the cutting edge. He said SOMSD, “(does) a bunch of this already… it’s taking that kind of work we do well and doing more of that” while working in the confines of resource management.
Board member Joanna Wright said her “concern is the implementation” as well as the need for cultural competency as a key part of the district’s planning. Many people don’t understand the term “cultural competency” and the district’s teachers have yet to be trained in it. She additionally commented, “let’s not forget the ACLU and discipline issues as well.” Wright also noted that Guidance would need to be completely overhauled to deal with this new way of teaching and learning.
CHS Principal Elizabeth Aaron, a committee member, said she supported the goals but she still had to look at what colleges, universities and workforces required in today’s world, and ensure her students were prepared.
In a call for patience, Ramos responded stating “this is about building into the DNA of our system how we go about our work” and “we have to let the process do what the process does.”
Wright also asked why Sage Consultants were not on the committee. Ramos said he did not want to include organizations since members might hold the group’s needs before the needs of students; he noted that the teacher’s union was not represented but there were individual teachers on the committee. Wright clarified with Ramos that going forward Sage Consultants will be involved. “We’re paying them some money and I want to get the money’s worth,” said Wright.
Pai called the document “vague,” but said “the vagueness is not really vagueness, it’s airspace to imagine action plans.” However, she noted that some of it might be difficult for the public to understand, and the board and district must be ready to explain the Strategic Direction clearly to the community.
Ramos said, “it’s not easy work, but it’s the right work” and “either we lead or it be done to us…who better than us to lead?”
As the board prepared to vote on approval of the Strategic Direction to enable the district to begin to develop specific action plans, Steve Latz, of the Maplewood Citizens Budget Advisory Committee, interjected that a board vote would be in violation of the Open Public Meetings Act, as the Strategic Direction document was not available to the public prior to the meeting, leaving no chance for public discussion.
While the board’s attorney Phil Stern told members they had some discretion, some members were hesitant to take an official vote. Kambili noted that “it would undermine the entire purpose of the document” to pass it without public discussion and President Elizabeth Baker expressed concern about the legality of a vote.
For his part, Ramos expressed concern about delaying the process by another month. Ms. Rowe said the document was a product of the public, so designated public discussion was perhaps unnecessary.
Ultimately, the board gave a unanimous unofficial acknowledgement of the Strategic Direction, so the superintendent could begin to develop specific action plans without breaching legality. Ramos will write to the community explaining the Direction and next steps, the document will be posted on the district website, and a Strategic Direction “Let’s Talk” tab will soon be available.
Also, Ramos said, more of the community would have a chance to be involved in drafting the action plan moving ahead.