Maplewood Schools / Kids South Orange

South Orange-Maplewood BOE Declines to Reverse Non-Renewal for MMS Science Teacher

Debra Hwang pleads her case before the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education. Photo by Bruno J. Navarro.

Despite remarks from nearly a dozen supporters asking that sixth-grade science teacher Debra Hwang have her contract renewed (and a reported 23 or more letters sent to South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education members), the Maplewood Middle School faculty member will not be returning to the district next year.

“There’s a disconnect,” Hwang told the Board of Education, between her evaluation scores that rated her as “effective” or “highly effective” in the four years she’s worked in the district. “It is never too late to reverse a poor decision.”

“It is this community that I want to continue teaching in,” Hwang said. “It is these children I want to continue teaching. … I have been ‘effective’ or ‘highly effective’ all four years at Maplewood Middle School.”

Hwang opted for a public discussion of her employment status — a process known as a Donaldson hearing — and she was accompanied by Edward Lesser, a representative from the New Jersey Education Association.

Lesser cited a letter Hwang had received informing her of the reasons for non-renewal that he said included allegations that struggling students had experienced difficulty in her class.

Yet Lesser also noted that expressed as a percentage, Hwang’s evaluations improved from a 74 last year to a 77 this year.

“That’s an improvement,” he said. “I have to wonder if every teacher in this district is being held to this standard.”

Lesser added that a score of 66 is considered effective in New Jersey.

Interim Superintendent Gayle Carrick, in response to a question from BOE 2nd Vice President Anthony Mazzocchi, said that she had spoken to four of the five administrators who evaluated Hwang and noted that Hwang’s performance evaluations had declined from a 3.72 composite score her first year, to a 3.3 the second year, followed by 2.97 in 2017-2018 and a 3.0 in the current year.

In those conversations with administrators, Carrick said, there was a determination that “feedback was not taken” by Hwang.

Board member Elizabeth Baker said she was “uncomfortable” with having personnel discussions in public and said she would speak with the “utmost discretion.” She then asked whether it was “appropriate” for a teacher to ask current students to show public support.

“No, I do not,” Carrick replied.

Baker also asked if staff members were allowed to use confidential student records (in this case, emailing parents) for purposes of contesting a non-renewal?

Board attorney Joanne Butler noted that the question was “off the topic.”

“I do believe it’s relevant,” Baker replied.

Board member Johanna Wright sought clarity on why Hwang was flagged for non-renewal this year.

“I’m looking at her scores where she’s a totally effective teacher,” she said. “Why now?”

“I’m not really clear on what happened. We’re talking about someone’s livelihood because I’m looking at someone who’s effective. There may have been a weakness. I don’t really see it.”

Carrick said that the principal at MMS was new to the school last year and wanted to wait a year to make changes. (MMS Principal Dara Gronau, reportedly facing non-renewal herself, offered her resignation last month, but her resignation was not accepted by the Board of Education.)

Board member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad said that Hwang had allegedly used the word “colored” to describe a person of color. Carrick said that she “had spoken to Ms. Hwang” about the use of the word and Hwang had explained it was “cultural” but seemed to understand that it was unacceptable and had since not used the term.

Lawson-Muhammad also asked who the students were who struggled in the classroom. Carrick noted that the “students were described to me as non motivated” but race was not mentioned. Lawson-Muhammad asked what percentage of students were black at MMS; SOMSD Business administrator Paul Roth reported 35 percent.

When Lawson-Muhammad noted few people of color had spoken on behalf of Hwang at the hearing, there was an outcry from the audience (one parent reached out to Village Green to report that the audience response was due to the fact that there were “black and Latino parents in line to speak but they didn’t get a chance and were ‘very upset’ about Lawson-Muhammad’s comments about POC and struggling students not being present”).

Board member Shannon Cuttle wanted to know if Hwang had received mentorship after getting feedback on her performance. Carrick explained that new teachers in New Jersey are all mentored as part of certification. However, while Hwang had been mentored in a previous job, she had not received mentorship, which is not required, in SOMSD.

After discussion, Board President Annemarie Maini asked for a show of hands from BOE members who wished to vote on the renewal in open session. Only Wright raised her hand. This caused some confusion, with Cuttle asking if the BOE was voting now. Maini then took another vote; since only Cuttle and Wright raised their hands, the non-renewal was accepted.

Earlier at the hearing, Catie Sheehy, an eighth-grader at Maplewood Middle School, spoke in support of Hwang.

“A few weeks ago, you announced that you would not be inviting Ms. Hwang back to MMS next year,” she said. “Many students, teachers, and even parents were all shocked by the news.”

Sheehy and Ariela Ellman, a sixth-grader at MMS, spoke about how Hwang had made science interesting, while her classes were challenging and promoted hard work.

“We have to understand as a community that we can’t fire the teachers that make Maplewood Middle School an amazing learning environment,” Ellman said. “We hope you hear and understand our reasoning and consider renewing Ms. Hwang as a teacher next year.”

Damian Cataneo, a freshman at Columbia High School who had Hwang as a teacher in 2015, spoke about how her “fun and interactive style of teaching” fueled his “passion for science.”

“It is true that students may complain at first that she expects too much, but she is taking on the challenge to raise her newly minted middle-schoolers to a higher level, and that is something we don’t appreciate — at first,” he said. “Sadly, some students dig in their heels and continue to fight against growth. Heck, they are middle-schoolers. But she does have the patience to wait for us to come around to a little maturing, and when we do we are rewarded with knowledge and self-confidence.”

Mary Mann and Carolyn Parisi contributed reporting to this article.

MMS science teacher Debra Hwang hugs a parent at her Donaldson hearing on June 13, 2019.

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