The South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education unanimously approved an Academic Placement policy revision last night that has been described as “one tool” toward implementation of the Access & Equity policy adopted by the Board earlier this fall — a policy adopted to close the district’s longstanding achievement gap between black and white students.
The Access & Equity policy states that students will have the choice and guidance to decide their own academic levels and will be provided supports to do so.
The new Academic Placement policy directs Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Ramos to develop and implement placement regulations, and to realign the K-12 curriculum to ensure that all district students are prepared to succeed in higher level classes by “providing the highest levels of academic rigor in all Kindergarten, Elementary, Middle and High School courses” — within six months.
At the November Board of Education meeting, Ramos explained that the new Academic Placement policy (Policy 2314) would respect the guidance of the Access & Equity policy and “make plain” that while the district would maintain levels “there would always with the possibility of reforming them,” first via pilot, but that nothing permanent regarding levels would be done without the approval of the Board.
At the second reading of the Academic Placement policy revisions on Monday night, District Counsel Phil Stern explained that the policy had been been “amended to make sure it conformed with our Access & Equity policy, putting a high priority on transparency of all academic offerings whether they are requiring formal board action or not.”
“For example,” explained Stern, “you’ll note in the policy it discusses any pilot programs that don’t require Board action [will] nevertheless require board and parental notification.” In addition, said Stern, “The policy has been changed to make sure that it is clear that the recommendations for any curricular offering are non-binding subject to the wishes of the student and his or her family.”
Stern noted that the only other “highlight” of the revision was a six-month timeline “in which to make sure that we get the how-to of this policy, the regulations to make sure that everything that needs to get done is done in a timely manner.”
Stern was referring to a portion of the policy that reads: “The Superintendent shall also develop and implement regulations within six months of passage of this Policy for the development of academic placement recommendations for students, including an appeals process for students and parents/guardians to exercise their right of access and choice, in accordance with this policy.”
Board members returned again to the question of the timetable, but first Board Student Alternate Representative Filip Saulean asked about language in the policy that stated that the Board “shall make every effort” to make sure that enrollment in classes in the advanced level “proportionately reflects the demographic profile of the individual school.” Said Saulean, “Can I ask about what are those efforts?”
Stern replied, “I believe that is what is going to be developed and that’s where the six months come in.” Ramos added that he would be providing monthly updates on the creation of the regulations.
Board member Johanna Wright questioned the six month timetable: “Six months is a short amount of time. You’ve got to look at new curriculum, schedules. It seems pretty aggressive to me.”
Ramos noted that the six months was for the delivery of a timeline and the creation of regulations to address the inequities — not eradicate them.
Board member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad said she was also “struck by the six months but I’ll say I appreciate it because it says, ‘Yes, we want you to do something and in a timely fashion.'”
Ramos explained that he “typically” did not endorse the idea of timeframes in policies “but I’m comfortable with this based on the historical context, and I’ve had people in the community say to me that they’ve seen language similar in the past but nothing’s ever happened. So we want to be clear that there is clear intent here.”
Board member Elizabeth Baker that the six-month benchmark was significant for two reasons: “We need to have a serious commitment, an action plan that’s measurable for the Board and the community,” and secondly: “It’s not just we are passing a policy and it’s going to happen magically with a sprinkle of fairy dust. We’re actually going to have regulations that everybody in the community can look at that we can make sure are being followed consistently from one school to the other … and if we are not doing it, it can be identified and rectified.”
Added Baker, “I think the policy revision is very clear that the racial disparities that we have tolerated in the district from one year to the next are unacceptable. [It] will not be a successful implementation of the policy if those continue.”
Saulean asked Ramos how the District would “factor in student and staff input during the six months.”
Ramos responded, “We can’t get this done without the staff. The staff has to be involved in how we go about the implementation if in fact we want them to carry it out.” He added, “I’m most curious to hear what students have to say … about what they think should or shouldn’t happen. I think students are going to have to help us figure out how to make an impression upon their peers about the importance of stretching, of challenging themselves, of not necessarily taking the safe route…. We’re going to have to have a student voice from the strategic direction on through.”
Board member Johanna Wright asked where Sage Consultants — the group hired to help the District address complaints from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) — figured into the process.
Ramos said he was not clear on Sage’s role “at this point…. Sage obviously did its initial job.”
He said that Sage could “work with our supervisors to make sure there are course descriptions that are clear, and leveling descriptors that are clear so students know what they are selecting. I’m in the midst of having conversations with Sage…. They just sent us a report on a crosswalk between what OCR is looking for and the work they have done.” However, Ramos said he needed to determine an “appropriate role for Sage” going forward. “I’ve got to analyze that in view of these policies and then come back to the Board with recommendations. [It has] less to do with Sage than with District taking direct responsibility for what has to be done.” Ramos also said he didn’t “want principals, for example, to feel that they have directions coming from multiple places.”
Ramos noted that, although the Sage contract is a three-year contract, it “is one year at a time, so again we need to evaluate.”
Ramos also mentioned that the OCR “has indicated that it is pleased with the Access policy … it’s what they were hoping to see along the way.” Ramos called the passage of the Access & Equity policy “a major touchstone for OCR,” and said that, “coupled with this [Academic Placement] policy, I think OCR will now be interested in how we implement.”
[Editor’s Note: Walter Fields of SOMA Black Parents Workshop, a party to one of the complaints filed against the District, issued a release commending the District on the adoption of the policies and asking all members of the district to embrace the new “direction,” but noted, “As the curricular alignment takes shape we intend to use all legal means to eliminate the vestiges of tracking and ‘levels’ that created the inequities in this district.” The release also stated that Black Parents Workshop would be issuing an annual Equity Report Card, at the end of each academic year. Read the full release below.]
Baker noted that the District had made the commitment “to go into the elementary schools and to identify the causation going back to kindergarten or prior to kindergarten to identify why we have these unacceptable disparities in access and opportunity.” Baker added that while “obviously we still have to get more feedback from more stakeholders and do more of the work … we finally as a district are owning [that] we can’t outsource it to a consultant…. We’re moving in a positive direction.”
Board member Jeff Bennett prompted a sharp reply from Lawson-Muhammad when he noted that, despite the District’s commitment to closing the gap and “ending disproportionalities” in high-level class enrollment, the District “doesn’t have complete influence on how kids do…. This is very complex issue. The district owns its own work but not the complete work. There are a lot of entities responsible for how a child is educated.”
Muhammad responded, “It’s complicated, no one disagrees, but the school district has a direct responsibility that they are not compounding those issues and concerns and creating an environment that is destined for failure for certain classes of people. I’m pleased we’ve moved beyond that … and that we are taking the appropriate action thoughtfully and in this complicated space to find solutions and be the model that we need to be.”
Board Vice President Madhu Pai added “one last point,” saying that the Board had clearly defined “what access is going to look like in this district — and it’s going to look great … but one of the things we haven’t done is define equity.” Pai said that some felt equity was providing the “same thing for all kids” while others saw it as “giving every kid what they need.”
Pai concluded, “I think we need to do that or we will not be able to move the work forward in the way we need to.”