SEGREGATED: A Working History of South Orange-Maplewood School Integration, Access & Equity Efforts

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As the South Orange-Maplewood School District — or SOMSD — enters the third year of its Intentional Integration Initiative — a generational effort to balance the district’s elementary and middle schools and ultimately improve outcomes for Black students — a draft final report by an outside consultant again demonstrates that the intended results of the effort can’t come soon enough: SOMSD continues to fail its Black students at alarming rates and in multiple ways.

As part of the collaborative journalism project Segregated, involving news organizations across New Jersey examining segregation in the state’s schools, Village Green is providing a working history of SOMSD efforts in the last 30 years to integrate or balance the schools racially and socio-economically, close the achievement gap and pilot or attempt other educational improvements.

This story aims to offer a basic timeline with links to further reporting. Despite its length, the story here is not fully comprehensive. Village Green plans to follow up and provide deeper dives in the coming months. We welcome and appreciate any feedback on the story; contact us at

1996-99: Seth Boyden Becomes a Demonstration School

After “a huge, bruising months-long fight over space and racial balance through most of 1996, with six alternate proposals to pair and/or cluster schools,” the designation of Seth Boyden as an “opt-in” demonstration school for multi-intelligence learning in 1999 did not meet with much opposition, says Steve Latz, a former South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education member who has remained active in local BOE politics and policy making since leaving the board after three terms.

But Latz stresses that the demonstration school opt-in model was never fully intended to solve the district’s integration problem: “The legal rationale of the Demonstration School was not racial integration but a combination of demonstrating the effectiveness locally of already proven educational methods, redistricting to eliminate overcrowding with an ongoing mechanism to balance enrollments, and socioeconomic integration.”

“The effort began in late 1998 when Dr. Peter Horoshak [the SOMSD superintendent at the time] reported to the Board that the assignment of Seth Boyden’s 4th grade to Jefferson [now Delia Bolden School], driven by overcrowding at Seth Boyden, wasn’t working and he was going to propose establishing Seth Boyden as a Demonstration School,” said Latz in an email response to questions from Village Green.

A slide from 2018 Community Coalition on Race presentation on SOMSD demographics.

“At [Horoschak’s] request, we hired Len Stevens as a consultant in late 1998 or early 1999,” says Latz. “Len spent three months conducting a series of meetings across the parent community to build buy-in for the idea. The Board voted in the spring of 1999 to establish the Demonstration School and changed school boundary lines, assigning parts of Seth Boyden’s enrollment zone to Tuscan, Clinton and Marshall-Jefferson, creating enough open seats to accommodate anticipated opt-in students. Marilyn Davenport, who had worked for Horoschak in Albuquerque (creating the legendary Governor Bent elementary school), was recruited to help lead the effort, bringing her version of the Multiple Intelligences approach to our district.”

The program was launched in the fall of 1999.

Latz is working on a series of blogs on the establishment of the demonstration school which he hopes to publish in the next few months.

Although Seth Boyden successfully delivered on implementing its curriculum, and Principal Mark Quiles enthusiastically marketed the school to the community throughout his 10-year tenure, the “opt-in” option didn’t move the needle on balancing the elementary schools. By 2016-2018, a demographer hired by the district as well as the Community Coalition on Race through its Schools Committee and demographic report noted that Seth Boyden was showing greater than 45% students qualifying for Free and Reduced Lunch (FRL), while the next closest elementary school was below 20% — and most other schools were below 10%.

BOE members also noted the unfairness of zoned Seth Boyden families being the only ones to lack an option and voted 8-1 to allow SB families an “opt out” option in 2017.

A micro-rezoning or redistricting in 2010 to deal with overcrowding at some of the elementary schools also met with vocal community opposition; although the rezoning was approved, it was modified somewhat with students in the rezoned areas and their siblings grandfathered into the old zoning.

2010-13: De-Leveling and IB at the Middle Schools

Beyond elementary school integration, academic achievement has been an issue that has left successive boards of education and superintendents befuddled and, at times, disheartened.

Current Maplewood resident and WNYC editor Nancy Solomon covered the achievement gap in her 2009 Peabody Award winning report “Mind the Gap: Why Good Schools Are Failing Black Students.” The report begins with a CHS history teacher taking Solomon into classrooms and demonstrating that one could gauge the course level by observing the racial makeup of the classes.

As the district moved into the 2010s, “de-leveling” or “leveling up” was the subject of much debate, with then Supt. of Schools Dr. Brian Osborne — and others — arguing that the district was denying students of color access to higher level courses and/or blocking that access starting at the middle school level.

The BOE did eventually vote to de-level courses at the middle school level in two rounds of measures (in 2010 and 2012), with Osborne mollifying critics of the move by coupling the de-leveling with a short-lived International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program — or IB MYP — that was poorly implemented and ultimately abandoned.

2015: Access & Equity/Academic Placement Policies

In 2015, the BOE voted to approve its “historic” Access & Equity Policy followed shortly thereafter by an Academic Placement policy meant to provide access to higher level courses at the high school to Black students.

Upon its passage, BOE President Wayne Eastman said the Access & Equity policy was a “seismic change” in the district, introducing choice and opening access to all classes and levels for all students throughout the district. BOE members who starkly disagreed on ideological and philosophic issues and approaches such as Beth Daugherty and Madhu Pai found common ground in lauding the policy. But Daugherty noted that the district needed to follow through on Kindergarten through 12th grade curricular alignment and creating supports for students. Elissa Malespina, who is the current BOE 1st Vice President and who was running (unsuccessfully) for a seat on the Board of Education at the time, said she felt the policy was “really good and I commend you for that” but said that it was “not something that is really new. You have something like it in place.” Malespina asked the Board, “How do you plan to implement this when the policy in place was not being followed?”

2018: More De-Leveling (middle school and high school)

By 2018, community members had largely accepted the need to de-level or combine levels. A proposal by then Interim Supt. of Schools Dr. Thomas Ficarra to realign the STEM program, reducing Math and Science by 15 levels combined in the middle school and high school curricula was met with applause and was adopted by a vote of 7-2 at the February 20, 2018 Board of Education meeting.

“This is an issue that goes beyond STEM alignment to … who we are and what kind of community this is,” said Ficarra.

“Like a body, we are not made of disconnected parts, we are made up of parts all connected.” Ficarra noted that particular parts of that body were suffering, impacting the whole. “The African American community is hurting, angry and frustrated to the point of outrage,” said Ficarra. “We have operated a system of invisible segregation.”

2018-2019: Facilities & Integration Plan

Finding that the district was dealing with a “segregation problem that most districts solved in the 70s,” Ficarra introduced what was first dubbed a Facilities & Integration Plan in May 2018, then took the plan on the road, holding town halls at schools throughout the district to get community feedback and build support.

The original $131 million proposal [the amount ultimately grew to $160M] aimed to fix the South Orange-Maplewood School District’s crumbling facilities and expand space in an effort to end overcrowding and segregation in the district.

The initial proposal also included a major reconfiguration, changing elementary schools from K-5 to K-4, placing all 5th and 6th graders at Maplewood Middle School, and placing all 7th and 8th graders at South Orange Middle School. A plan to redistrict the elementary schools would take place after the facilities plan was approved.

When parents questioned why the facilities plan needed to be combined with the integration plan, Ficarra replied: “I can’t conceive of spending $100 million and putting kids back into de facto segregated schools.”

In December 2018, the South Orange and Maplewood Board of School Estimate voted unanimously to approve the school district moving forward with what had grown to a $140 million long range facilities and integration plan. (Another $20M for HVAC and sports fields was added before the Board of School Estimate approved the tax levy increase.)

In March 2019, the integration component was postponed until 2021 after the grades 5-6 and 7-8 reconfiguration was scrapped in October in favor of keeping the existing K-5, 6-8 configuration.


In January 2020, under new Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ronald Taylor’s direction, the district embarked on a series of community meetings to discuss the “growth mindset” — a concept Taylor touted since before he took the helm of SOMSD in July 2019 — necessary to evolve into an educational system that serves all its students. The district’s efforts to achieve this included the now-named SOMSD Intentional Integration Initiative. The series began with a “Equity in Integration Symposium” on January 8 where experts spoke about the research around integration, its benefits for students of all backgrounds, and how some other districts’ efforts have implemented it, along with historical and legal context. The event drew more than 600 local residents to the Columbia High School auditorium.

Dr. Ronald Taylor at Integration Symposium January 8, 2020 (Bruno Navarro)

At that symposium, Elise Boddie, a nationally recognized civil-rights expert, noted that New Jersey public schools are the sixth-most segregated in the union for black students and seventh-most segregated for Latino students, adding that “New Jersey’s is the only state constitution that explicitly bans segregation in public schools.”

Boddie warned that there was no “silver bullet” for a successful integration plan. “Race is a very dynamic system,” she said. “You think you’ve dealt with it, but you have to keep refreshing, keep attentive.”

Dr. Eddie Fergus, then an assistant professor of urban education at Temple University who moderated the event and who had worked previously with the district on its equity efforts, agreed that evaluation was essential. “Constantly auditing where we are is important,” he said.

On June 22, 2020, the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education voted 8-0 to implement the integration plan, beginning with the incoming 2021 kindergarten class, with the next phase involving rising sixth-graders the following year. The BOE voted to develop an algorithm, modeled on the Berkley Model, “that will equitably distribute students among schools, based on key facts such as parental income and education level, neighborhood proximity, sibling preference and race.”

Despite a 2019 article in The New York Times article titled, “A Suburb Believed in Liberal Ideals. Then Came a New Busing Plan”, and based on an unnamed thread in a local Facebook group, the III did not elicit significant pushback at BOE meetings during public comments or otherwise, and appeared to have widespread community support — including from all BOE candidates. (The headline of the NYT story was also incorrect, as no “busing plan” or detailed integration plan, for that matter, had yet been finalized or announced.) The article prompted discussions within the community, with some taking issue with the newspaper’s characterization that some Maplewood residents are opposed to busing (the article did not focus on South Orange). Others commended what they saw as a frank examination of the district’s longtime struggle to desegregate its school system.

The III appeared to move smoothly through its first year, produced success rebalancing kindergarten and then the 1st and 6th grades via socioeconomic status — or SES — in Years 1 and 2, and has been approved for further expansion in Year 3 which begins this September.

However, the implementation of the plan has run into some bumps in the road, including a delayed family survey, calls for transparency around the algorithm (which was posted to the district website in 2023), and, recently, 47 district preschool students were left out of the kindergarten lottery for the 2023-24 school year (story to come).

2022-23: Transportation

The largest misstep by the district and BOE happened when families found out just weeks before the start of the 2022-23 school year that so-called “courtesy busing” had been abolished. Although the move to change the transportation policy was announced at a BOE meeting in March 2021, the district did not perform outreach to families at that time or solicit their feedback. Affected families vocally protested the move online and at BOE meetings, stating that they supported the III but needed transportation. After a judge granted 45 students emergent relief based on hazardous routes, the BOE — after a contentious discussion — voted to accept a settlement with the families. In May 2023, the Board of School Estimate voted to expand the tax levy to restore courtesy busing at 1.25 miles for elementary students.

Discussion about the courtesy busing situation involved accusations of racism, with some community members saying complaints about the loss of courtesy busing were part of efforts to undermine the III. It became the central issue of the November 2022 BOE election, with candidates who were perceived as being allied with the BOE leadership losing their bids.

Meanwhile, affected families petitioning for the restoration of courtesy busing protested that they were not “rich”, “white” and “entitled”.

Board of Ed 2nd Vice President Nubia Wilson lauded the decision to restore courtesy busing: “It’s a gold standard,” said Wilson. “If you’re going to do integration, you do transportation.”

[Note: In 2021-22, SOMSD did create a Columbia High School-Seth Boyden shuttle which Taylor said was launched “in response to ongoing concerns from our Board of Education regarding Columbia High School’s traditionally most vulnerable population and the historic challenges they experienced in reaching school. This is in line with our systemic commitment to Access and Equity … i.e. Intentional Integration, Equal Opportunity Schools, Risk Ratio analysis etc.” The shuttle was among proposals made by Interim Head of Guidance Scott White in a scathing critique of the district that he penned upon his departure in 2020.]

2023: “Controlled Choice” or “No Exceptions”

With a change in BOE leadership in January 2023, BOE member Susan Bergin warned against the III being “chipped away” upon her resignation in February 2023.

“The integration initiative is now at risk of being chipped away before it has even realized its full potential. Parental ‘choice’ inevitably leads to an erosion of integration, regardless of intentions and the format it takes, be it hardship exceptions, a transfer portal, or outright school choice,” wrote Bergin in her resignation message.

New BOE President Kaitlin Wittleder countered, “Susan should rest assured that the Board’s commitment to the Intentional Integration Initiative is steadfast, and will not weaken in her absence. In her departure statement, Susan expressed a concern that “deep pockets are determined to undo our work”. Here, I feel she badly underestimates our community. We are incredibly fortunate to live in two very special communities whose commitment to the values of equity and justice are deep and unwavering. Making our schools stronger, fairer and more just has been a multi-decade effort. That effort will continue.” Taylor and Wittleder also explicitly rejected controlled choice in a message to the community in April.

However, Bergin and others have stated that implicit, rather than explicit, choice is really the concern.

Parents have expressed frustration with the fact that the district is not accepting any transfer requests, even when alleged mistakes have been made in the application of the algorithm. For example, in his response to parents of the 47 preschoolers left out of the 2023/24 lottery, Taylor wrote, “In an effort to maintain the integrity of the algorithm and the District’s Intentional Integration Initiative, placement decisions are final.” Transfer requests were denied, with the explanation: “We of course want our parents to be happy with their children’s placement, however, exceptions to our III are a significant threat to this work and our commitment to access and equity. Please be aware that other parents have made similar requests and have also been denied, it would be inequitable to grant these requests for some and not others.”

Nonetheless, Taylor indicated that he and the BOE were open to some kind of transfer portal in comments made at the June 2023 BOE meeting.

During public comments, former BOE member Jeff Bennett advocated for wait list transfer process similar to one in Montclair: “All the other districts I look at that have integration plans have transfer processes. … I feel that there is this opposition to a transfer process because it would … be a thousand cuts to the integration plan.” But Bennett said he also felt that there would be a minimal amount of transfer requests now that courtesy busing had been restored.

“I don’t see support for the integration plan as fragile,” said Bennett.

“There are discussions in the board … that there is consideration around an socioeconomic status transfer mechanism,” replied Taylor, “and we’ll keep everyone posted if that policy is adjusted and make sure everyone knows.”

“It’s not just a matter of placing kids in spaces that are on hold for special needs students,” said Taylor. “That is exactly what we would not do. Those spaces are held for a reason for ELL or special needs students. But for other spaces that may come available having a socioeconomic status waitlist could be a mechanism that is used for those that are looking for a different school.”

Watch Taylor’s full comments at 2:57:07 in the video.

2014-Present: Lawsuits & Settlements

Meanwhile, the district has been subject to two lawsuits and settlements around Black student access and equity.

In 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of New Jersey, and the Center for Civil Rights Remedies of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA filed a complaint against the South Orange-Maplewood School District with the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) asking for an investigation into the district’s disciplinary policies and academic tracking standards vis-a-vis race, and charged that “the school district’s tracking and discipline practices disproportionately confine students of color to lower-level classes and punish students of color and students with disabilities to a greater degree,” violating the Department of Education’s regulations interpreting Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Later that year, the district entered into a settlement with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights over the complaint. The district is required to file an annual report with the OCR; Village Green filed an OPRA for the 2022 report last August and posted it here.

In 2020, the district reached a settlement with the Black Parents Workshop, founded by local parent and activist Walter Fields. The BPW had sued the district on similar grounds to the OCR (and Fields had been involved in aiding the earlier suit as well). The BPW settlement, however, had more rigorous and tangible deliverables. In 2022, BPW held a virtual town hall noting that, while the district had met several parameters of the agreement, others were outstanding. BPW, now led by local parent James Davis, ultimately decided not to take further legal action in 2022 after the the district contacted the settlement monitor and the district rehired Dr. Eddie Fergus of the Rutgers University Equity Lab to finish a report on K-12 disparities in the district.

After Fergus delivered a draft final report to BPW in June, showing continued “stark” achievement disparities and cataloguing students’ criticisms regarding supports, BPW is now threatening further legal action.

2017-Present: Ongoing Negative Data

Throughout the years, the community has anxiously awaited improvements in outcomes, but data points have been hard to move and anecdotal reports have shown that students feel they are not yet receiving the necessary supports.

Some examples:

October 2017 — Supt. Ficarra, Asst. Superintendent for Administration Kevin Walston and Dir. of Planning and Assessment Dr. Kalisha Morgan presented a report to the BOE stating, “Two years after the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education passed a sweeping Access & Equity policy designed to end years of institutionalized racism and address complaints that children of color are disproportionately steered into lower level classes, little meaningful progress has been made.” Board of Education members called the results “terrible,” “mind-boggling,” “appalling” and “unconscionable,” the members expressed deep anger, frustration and sadness. Some were visibly emotional. “We cannot continue to live like this,” said First VP Chris Sabin. “We have to do better by everybody. This is just…terrible,” he said.

August 2022 – A presentation to the Board of Education by CHS Principal Frank Sanchez, newly appointed Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction Ann Bodnar, and K-12 English Language Arts Supervisor Dr. Jane Bean-Folkes showed that more Black students failed fourth marking period classes at Columbia High School than did students from any other ethnic group, and it was not clear from data provided by school officials that interventions in place are providing enough support to reverse that direction. (Note: The district adjusted its marking period grading system in 2021 to help students at risk of failing.)

January 2023 — Bodnar presented New Jersey Student Learning Assessment (NJSLA) results from Spring 2022 to the BOE, showing that —while more students overall in the South Orange-Maplewood School District meet or exceed state standards for proficiency in English language arts (ELA), math, and science than do students statewide — far more Black and Hispanic students than white students in the district are not meeting those standards.

June 2023 — The Fergus report found stark disparity patterns particularly in special education data — from 2018 through 2022, “Black students were consistently 80 to 90% more likely compared to all others to be identified with a disability. White students were between 40 to 50% less likely compared to all others to be identified with a disability” — as well as honors and AP placement. Regarding curriculum, the report finds “less rigorous curriculum experienced by middle school students in lower track courses,” that “Math course selection policy enacts a bounded system that reinforces inequalities in opportunity; and Math course selection criteria of assessment data, parent choice, and teacher recommendation deepen disparities.”

The Fergus report also takes the district’s I&RS — or Intervention & Referral Services — program to task, saying that it is “inconsistent across elementary schools” and a disproportionate rate of students referred are Black. (The district discussed changes to I&RS at the May Board of Education meeting, focusing on high school; it’s unclear if the student achievement goal will be adjusted based on feedback from Fergus at this time.)

A Pending Decision for New Jersey

As South Orange-Maplewood schools wend their way toward greater elementary and middle school socio-economic and racial parity through the Intentional Integration Initiative, schools districts throughout New Jersey — including SOMSD — could be facing new, broader integration goals depending on the outcome of a case being decided by a New Jersey superior court of Mercer County brought by the NAACP and the Latino Action Network.

A ruling could come later this month — or not. But pundits have been working to predict what the impact could be.

In response to a question from Village Green, Supt. Dr. Taylor said that he did think the III “could be an answer to be considered further. It allows for a thoughtful process, without bias or preference (census data etc), and was developed with input from parents, staff, and other stakeholders. It is a way to modify demographics in schools year over year without the time-consuming shifting of school assignment zones that could require modifications multiple times over the years.”

Other districts have already expressed interest in the III model, says Taylor. He has presented it to the School Integration Joint Committee for the NJ Assembly and Senate. “I also presented at the MSAN Institute at the University of Wisconsin -Madison, GOMO Equity Leadership Network and a recent Essex County Executive Superintendent Monthly meeting.”

Taylor also said that the III isn’t just about rebalancing schools but will address unequal student treatment and achievement issues, and pointed to work the district is doing on academic achievement, culture and interventions: “This is not just a placement exercise. It also includes a significant investment in professional development for our staff in topics of cultural competency, restorative justice/practices, academic intervention etc. We believe these topics are essential as we continue to work towards the social economic integration of our schools to reflect the rich diversity of our community for the benefit of all students.”

With reporting by Carolyn Parisi, Lela Moore and Bruno J. Navarro.


In study after study, New Jersey — despite its diverse overall population — has been found to have one of the most segregated public school systems in the country. More than a dozen newsrooms covering New Jersey have come together to explain how it came to this, what might be done about it and how segregation affects the student experience. The series, Segregated, includes reporting from Village Green, Gothamist/WNYC, NJ Spotlight News and others. The continuing reporting can be found here.


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