Maplewood Schools / Kids South Orange

SOMSD 2020 Leaders: ‘Intentional Integration’ Involves More Than Simply Placing Children

Facing starkly disproportionate integration numbers across its elementary schools, the South Orange-Maplewood School District is working to integrate those schools by rolling out an ‘Intentional Integration and Innovation Initiative’ for the 2020/21 school year called “SOMSD 2020.”

Interim Superintendent of Schools Dr. Thomas Ficarra has tied the effort to a $140M Long-Range Facilities Plan as a two-pronged endeavor to end “de facto segregation” in the South Orange-Maplewood district.

The district has been looking to solve the issue of its segregated elementary schools for some years: Twenty years ago, Seth Boyden School was designated a “demonstration school” with families from outside its zone invited to opt-in in an effort to integrate the school. However, as the number of white students at the school has dropped in recent years and the number of children qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches has climbed (and the district has faced legal action), the district has recognized the need for a new plan.

Principal on Special Assignment Elizabeth Aaron, formerly the Principal of Columbia High School, and Dr. Edward Fergus of Temple University are working the SOMSD 2020 effort (recently joined by new SOMSD Director of Curriculum Ann Bodnar, see below).

The two hosted a a presentation on October 25, 2018 at Seth Boyden introducing and outlining the scope of the initiative to the public. (See the video here. See the powerpoint presentation below.)

At a recent Board of Education meeting, Dr. Ficarra confirmed that the integration plan will entail “controlled choice.”. Controlled choice would involve families listing their top elementary school choices in an order or preference, with children being placed based on a combination of parental choice and the district’s need/desire to integrate.

Aaron told Village Green that she is, at the direction of Dr. Ficarra, currently working with the elementary school principals to determine “themes” for the six elementary schools — Clinton, Jefferson, Marshall, Seth Boyden, South Mountain (and annex), and Tuscan. Three themes will be chosen with 2 schools sharing each theme.

Aaron pointed out that the district is aiming to integrate schools based on the numerical goal of socioeconomic status (SES) — not race — as legally mandated/necessitated (basically aiming to get each elementary school to approximate 20% Free & Reduce Price Lunch — or FRL — eligible).

During our conversation with Aaron and the presentation by Aaron and Fergus, it was clear the duo wanted to make a number of distinctions about the complexity of the work they were undertaking.

First the stated goal of SOMSD 2020 is to “create schools that are socioeconomically integrated in a way that reflects the diversity of the our community and in which all students and staff are fully supported, engaged, and working for excellence and equity in all area of schooling in our district.”

Aaron and Fergus stressed throughout their remarks that integration will be an ongoing and multifaceted process that will include social justice and cultural elements — and monitoring and data collection to ensure the cultural shift as well as FRL shifts.

“What this is NOT about is picking up children of color and sprinkling them … throughout the district…. It’s not about them being moved. It’s about doing the work to do true equitable treatment and access to opportunity,” said Fergus at the October presentation.

“There have to be touch points where key individuals will check against what was planned and what we are doing,” said Aaron. She noted that she and Fergus are looking at districts across the country that have gone through similar processes. As an example of best practices learned from other districts, Aaron pointed out that Champaign, IL has an assistant superintendent on equity.

Notably, Fergus has worked with 73 other school districts on integration and achievement disparities. He’s written reports for U.S. Department of Justice Office of Civil Rights and he’s worked with districts on remedies. (In the video at from the October presentation at 26:30, Fergus talks about example districts, starting with White Plains NY; at 30:40 Fergus talks about sample district Champaign, IL; Fergus takes questions from the audience at 35:00.)

During the presentation in October, Fergus discussed the work beyond placing students, asking rhetorically, “How do you mandate people on how to get along?” He added, “We are building up the capacity of our educators as we do this work. Though we say ‘2020,’ it’s not THE ribbon cutting it’s one of many ribbon cuttings. The capacity building is going to have different stages to it.”

Fergus outlined three components of elementary school integration (see the remarks at 23:00 in the video):

  • Numerical: Continuous attention to enrollment patterns
  • Social Justice: Continuous focus on access and opportunity availability across all schools
  • Culture/Belief: Continuous focus on naming and reducing the beliefs that frame and impact perceptions of differences such as cognitive and behavioral abilities

Fergus’s contract with the district extends from Sept 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019. Aaron said that Fergus is “facilitating work with the principals around reducing disparities and improving quality of social justice in the schools” and “working with the district to support the goals of integration in the elementary schools.” His jobs is to help the district devise a plan that “provides great cross-cultural exposure for children and families, the availability of resources in more schools, and the expansion of practitioner capacity.” In addition, Fergus is:

1. Working with district and school staff in developing understanding of integration goals.
2. Conducting focus groups and planning conversations with community groups.
3. Supporting technical development of integration goals including curriculum, staffing, etc.

Fergus noted that most districts implement intentional integration plans by setting a three-year goal.

“When you get back to monitoring, that’s the work,” said Aaron.

Aaron also explained that the district will also be working to capture much more information about families during registration — such as primary language, parental education attainment, single/dual family household — in order to do the integration work well. “FRL is just one piece of information,” said Aaron. “Districts that do this well pick up more information. [It] needs to be every element of integration.”

Addressing the issue of busing around controlled choice, Aaron said, “We are a district that buses quite a bit already and what that looks like with controlled choice is not yet determined.”

Working alongside Aaron and Fergus will be the new Director of Curriculum — and former Clinton School Principal — Ann Bodnar. In a statement about Bodnar’s appointment, Dr. Ficarra noted her experience working “on bias awareness and developing culturally inclusive curriculum” and stated that Bodnar :has already taken a leading role in the brainstorming for elementary reconfiguration, which will be one of her first major projects as Director of Curriculum.”

(Related: Parents and guardians have been invited to join the SOMSD 2020 Committee to help guide the Intentional Integration process.)

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