The South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education voted 8-1 Tuesday night (with Johanna Wright dissenting) to accept the administration’s proposed strategic direction document and approve the continuation of the strategic planning process — but not before hearing numerous comments from district parents criticizing the document and the process or asking the Board to slow down or amend the process.
In response, Board members — and Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Ramos — stressed that the acceptance of the direction document and the decision to move forward was just an early step (in fact, step 4) in a 12-step process that would yield a new Strategic Plan for the district. Ramos and many Board members emphasized that there was still much time for community input and argued that the shape of the final plan was not a foregone conclusion.
Early in the meeting, Ramos again presented the framework for the Strategic Planning process. The Superintendent sounded a bit perturbed by negative reactions to the strategic direction after it was unveiled at several forums over the last few weeks. He reviewed the entire Strategic Planning process thus far, stressing the amount of community involvement and feedback, including the November 10 Education Summit attended by 1,500 community members, as well as subsequent forums and outreach.
“All of that data was captured,” said Ramos. “There’s a reason for me going through this. All of that data was considered in this strategic direction.” Ramos said he wanted to emphasize that the strategic planning process was “an organic process” and that it was not started with a “preconceived notion,” but rather “with an open-ended question.”
Ramos said that the Strategic Direction Committee, in synthesizing the data collected, “recognized several themes, but the overarching theme of the data is this — a paradigm shift from fitting families and students into current structures to restructuring programs to fit students’ needs.”
Ramos said that “in any strategic plan, there is certain point where people in charge have to do something. My job was to try my best to identify 20 individuals from across the 1,500 who attended the summit to ensure that they represented the whole.” Ramos noted that the number of 20 was stretched to 27. Ramos said that the group then had to work for three full days to think through the questions presented at the Education Summit to develop “an overview, a direction, a sense of where we might go to move this district forward to best prepare” students for the challenges they face in the 21st century.
“I think we did a good job,” said Ramos.
“I ask that we take a deep breath as a community. The last thing I want this to be is divisive.”
Ramos noted that “the detail, the metrics, the budgets, they come later” and “the Board will have the opportunity to review the action plans and ensure alignment with the district goals.”
Four members of the Strategic Direction Committee also spoke. Marisa Stoessel, a teacher at Jefferson Elementary, spoke about “seat time” and moving learning to “where and when the learning is happening in our classrooms and outside our classrooms.” She spoke about moving students to “mastery-based pacing” and also spoke about having students learn collaboratively across grade levels, through field experiences, mentorships, online courses and more.
Dr. Scott Stornetta, a math teacher at Columbia High School, addressed the controversy around the term “learner-centered” and referred to a widely circulated blog he had posted describing his explanation of learner-centered as customizing and individualizing the educational experience.
“Two teachers walk into a bar,” Stornetta began to laughter. “One asks, ‘What does learner-centered mean to you?’ I wish there was a punchline.” Stornetta continued that it had become clear to him “that this is no joke. Words matter. But I can safely say that we had no idea that ‘learner-centered’ would create so much discussion.” He continued by saying that learner-centered was not about teacher reduction but about “providing the resources teachers need to be successful.” Stornetta also stressed that “any adoption of this new direction will have to be incremental through small piloted programs. There’s simply no other way. Though the goal is radical, the adoption must be inherently measured.” He also noted that the committee avoided choosing the terms “student-led” or “student-directed” although they “came from the enthusiasm of the students involved. In a desire to express restraint, we arrived at learner-centered.”
South Orange Middle School teacher Lynn McGlotten said that speaking about the strategic direction process made her emotional. “It was three days of 30 people who really care about our students. All students. The reason that I would beg the Board to adopt it is the young man who was sitting behind me. He made it very clear that the district needed to be more learner-centered and we should not be cardboard cutouts” of other districts.
Maplewood Middle School Asst. Principal Marc Gold said that the direction document would ensure that the planning process identified “areas of excellence … continuing our AP courses and our enrichment courses that already exist and putting them in the new model.” He said that the process could also identify “some low hanging fruit … using community expertise that we are not capitalizing on.”
Ramos again stressed that the strategic planning process was at least 14 months long and that the action plans would not be brought to the strategic direction committee until September. “There will be months of work that action plan teams are engaged in,” said Ramos. He added that the full strategic plan and action plans would be before the Board of Education in October to be be voted on in November. “With that approval, [we] would begin implementation scheduling over November and December and get to work.” Ramos said that the action plans would be incorporated in the 2017-18 budget cycle.
In answer to a question from Board President Elizabeth Baker, Ramos said that the strategic plan created a “true north” by which the district could be guided. “You’re also able to attract funding sources because they too are clear that you are clear about what you intend to do. Foundations otherwise feel they are throwing money down a dark hole.”
Ramos also said that the the Board and the committees would be in constant communications with the Board providing oversight and receiving feedback. Ramos said that the Board needed to strike a balance of maintaining contact with the process but maintaining some distance in order to preserve the “integrity of process but at the same time .. have a better sense of overview.”
“We’ve determined not to involved BOE members in action teams so that they may maintain their governing posture.”
During pubic comments, there was clear pushback from many members of the public. A 7th grade MMS student articulately described her misgivings about “learner-centered,” saying that such a model failed in her social studies class. “I experienced students not bothering to do the questions as they were under no scrutiny,” she reported, saying that while “higher achievers are more motivated, less motivated students will ignore the work” because they “face no discipline.” She worried that the role of the teacher was “less important in this model.”
One parent said that while she appreciated Dr. Stornetta’s “beautifully illustrated” interpretation of learner-centered, “other interpretations are quite different.”
“It would be useful to clarify that and codify that,” said the parent.
South Orange resident, parent, and child psychologist Sabina Hack said that she worried about the many initiatives that the district had taken up in recent years including de-leveling, IB and W.I.N. — “All done quickly and across the board.” After calling IB a “disaster,” Hack noted that the W.I.N. program could be viewed as an “inadequate” learner-centered environment. Hack asked the Board to adopt a strategy that was “driven by data,” rather than a “rushed mess.”
Another parent expressed concern that the strategic direction document did not address levels and seemed “to go against the Board’s policy on levels.” He complained that the document was “very vaguely worded [with] no discussion of direction with levels no longer being around.” Saying that levels “should have been included in the discussion,” he urged, “before going forward, [we] need to get information on this.”
Another parent with two children in the district said she had reviewed the strategic direction document against notes from the Education Summit and found that it did not reflect the discussions at the summit: “The strategic direction does not reflect the summit but just a cohort.” However, she also said that she wanted core concepts such as academic excellence included in the mission statement of the strategic direction and was “pleased to hear from Dr. Ramos that the Board is in the process of doing this,” calling it “a move in the right direction.”
Another parent representing the group Academic Excellence and Choice for All read from a petition signed by 160 people, stating that the district had not provided a definition for learner-centered environment, asking “the Board of Education to reconsider this timing and the process itself,” and calling “upon the district and the Board of Education to undertake a vetting process which not only illustrates these potential changes, but more importantly, provides empirical data supporting why these fundamental changes will benefit our students, before holding this important vote.”
A number of parents said they appreciated Dr. Stornetta’s description of learner-centered. One community member drew laughs by admitting she had an “edu-crush” on Dr. Stornetta. “I feel like I want Dr. Stornetta to run the whole thing,” joked another parent, who added, “I think there is stuff out there about learner-centered environments that needs to be addressed. I’d like the process to be slowed down.” Both, however, worried that the adoption of the strategic direction document was a foregone conclusion as there was already training scheduled on Friday for action team members.
Former Board member Steve Latz noted that unease with the strategic direction had brought together community members normally at odds with each other. “I don’t feel against this,” said Latz, “but hope you take their valuable concerns to heart — many of them I’m not even on speaking terms with.” Latz suggested the district perform an “environmental scan – trying to get community buy-in.”
Former candidates for Board of Educaton Shannel Roberts and Marian Raab both spoke. Raab asked the Board to slow down the process and also expressed her discomfort with attracting private foundation money. “I don’t want it to be financed by private foundation money under any circumstance,” said Raab. Roberts wanted Seth Boyden School — “the most segregated and underfunded in our district” — to be included in the discussion and for the zoned community to be involved in setting the school’s new mission and to be able to opt out if “it doesn’t fit their charge.”
During deliberation, Board member Chris Sabin said that the evening’s discussion had “finally made clear to me that we have time to develop and listen to everyone here today to make sure we have the right tools and implement everything necessary. And hopefully we can move forward.”
However, Board member Johanna Wright said that the direction document did not include sufficient perspectives from teachers and students. “This is really really important. I’ve been listening to a lot of people — some have issues, some are very excited…. Let’s hear from all of the students. Let’s have a parent forum. Let’s have a teacher forum. Teachers feel disenfranchised. Everyone’s afraid to speak.”
Board member Donna Smith encouraged all to read Dr. Stornetta’s full blog. “I would call it individualized learning rather than learner-centered,” said Smith. “We have to transform the district very slowly with pilot programs. So I think people need to understand that. We are taking a breath. The Board is going to be providing guidance to the action team. Therefore I will support this.”
Board 1st Vice President Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad talked about how lost she felt as a new Board member without a strategic plan. “Working 20 years in corporate America, you have a strategic plan or your company loses its way. I’ve been asking, ‘What’s the big picture?’ Solving those little problems aren’t getting us anywhere.” She added, “I’m very comfortable that we are advancing into even broader involvement. I am impressed with the process…. There will be ample time for feedback.”
Board 2nd Vice President Madhu Pai said she wanted to echo Lawson-Muhammad about the importance of a strategic plan. “This district needs a north star, a vision, something to guide its work. All we have are knee-jerk programs, some of which have been disastrous, W.I.N. included.
However, Pai said that the “discomfort” of the community members speaking at the meeting tonight could not be “overlooked.”
“We have a sticking point,” said Pai. “Two words” (meaning “learner-centered”). Pai continued, “Dr. Ramos, I’ve asked for a glossary. If we can’t change the two words on the document, then this community and this board deserves a definition of what ‘learner-centered environment’ means. I’ve listened to Dr. Stornetta. If that’s the mission — great…. I’m willing to move forward but we do need some clarity because this is a sticking point. Why self-create hurdles when we don’t need to?”
Former Board President Beth Daugherty said that, as a member of the strategic direction committee, she could testify that there was “no pre-baked conclusion.” She added, “the idea that learner-centered would be so polarizing is surprising but when I hear what everyone is concerned about I understand…. [getting] clarity on the term is good.”
Board member Maureen Jones wanted to assure community members that the Board heard their concerns but said “we’re getting ahead of ourselves thinking something is going to change overnight.”
Even student rep Nina Kambili ultimately supported the adoption, although with a caveat: “I do think that the process needs to be reexamined as we are going forward…. Reaching out to teachers and reaching out to students…. I don’t think that’s incompatible with what we’re doing. If I were voting, I think I’d say, ‘Go for it.'”
After the vote, former candidate for Board of Education Elissa Malespina addressed the Board. “It was more than just two words,” said Malespina. “A lot more was brought up tonight.”