South Orange-Maplewood Kindergartens to Be Integrated by September 2021, Superintendent Says

by Bruno J. Navarro
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Public elementary schools in South Orange and Maplewood will have a redistricting plan recommendation no later than June 2020, as part of the school district’s integration efforts, Superintendent Ronald Taylor told the community at a town-hall meeting on Wednesday.

“In September 2021, our first class will be entering into our newly integrated kindergarten,” he told the audience of over 200 people gathered at the Jefferson Elementary School auditorium for an update on the South-Orange Maplewood School District Intentional Integration Initiative (SOMSD III).

(See a copy of the presentation attached below as a PDF).

SOMSD Superintendent Ronald Taylor speaks with parents following Wednesday’s town hall meeting at Jefferson Elementary School.
(Bruno J. Navarro)

Once again, Taylor laid out some of his big-picture considerations around integrating SOMSD schools as he did in an October town hall and a November community meeting.

Taylor said that when crafting a redistricting and integration plan, school officials are going to keep in mind sibling preference, transportation concerns, students with special needs, aftercare consistency, and a systemic pacing of initial implementation — all of which would be evaluated in an “annual review of guidelines and holistic implementation goals.”

Another component of the planning process is to think about how to increase access and equity, Taylor said, and that includes such elements as budgeting funds that address implicit bias in the costs of school-based academic and extracurricular programs, and listening to families of special-education students regarding inclusion.

Taylor said that he will continue the conversation at town hall meetings at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 18, at Maplewood Middle School and 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 30, at South Orange Middle School.

SOMSD business administrator Paul Roth provided a recap of the work that has already taken place as part of  a $157.4 million capital-improvement plan to upgrade schools and ensure that each one reflects the socioeconomic and racial makeup of South Orange and Maplewood.

Summarizing the work that began in the summer of 2017, Roth said that the next steps include a review of environmental and geothermal studies, followed by a consensus on the final design before it is submitted to the state Department of Education. The plans are then reviewed by municipal code officials, and then the bid specifications have to be approved by the state comptroller.

Roth joked that one of the questions he hears is whether the superintendent will get a new office.

“No,” he said. “There is no money” for that.

Questions From the Audience

Several parents spoke up during a question-and-answer period after the presentation. In response to one question, Taylor said that it was too soon to know whether existing students will be moved in the fall of 2021.

“We’re not ready to give that information because the board has not yet had a chance to consider and vote on it,” he said. “But we do understand that concern.”

Another parent lamented the lack of specifics around redistricting. “We can’t give feedback when there’s no specifics,” he said to applause. “You need to put something forward so we can evaluate it and give some thoughtful feedback.”

One parent from Seth Boyden Elementary called out the inability to accommodate parents who wanted to opt in and also said that online registration didn’t work correctly.

“I’m disappointed to hear about registration,” Taylor said. “The last thing we want is for parents to lose confidence with us when we have much larger issues ahead.”

SOMSD Superintendent Ronald Taylor listens to a parent’s questions during a town hall meeting at Jefferson Elementary School on Wednesday.

Taylor said that he had conducted “a lot of conversations” with the Seth Boyden Elementary School community, particularly from parents who had wanted to opt in but weren’t able to.

“You don’t want to end up with overcrowded schools,” he said. “We have to hold certain seats open because of special ed” and for families that move to the school district late in the summer. Taylor also noted that almost 30 percent of students in the district “already go to school outside of their zones because of overcrowding.”

South Orange parent Jennifer Serravallo asked about the plan for furniture, books, and teaching materials — “all the things it takes to convert K-2 buildings to K-5 schools.” She noted that during a past school reconfiguration, Jefferson Elementary’s playground had to be razed, and it was up to the school’s parents to raise the funds to rebuild. (Marshall Elementary is K-2, after which students attend Jefferson Elementary, which houses Grades 3-5.)

Taylor said that “we’re lucky” that the school district wasn’t following the so-called Princeton plan, which would put all district students in a certain grade together. A modified version of such an approach, which would have reconfigured the district’s two middle schools to serve as separate schools housing Grades 5-6 and Grades 7-8 schools, was rejected in October 2018, ahead of the school bonding issue.

Taylor said that he didn’t predict “mass transfers” of staff, although staff development would be a priority to deal with any shift in students’ ages and racial makeup. Citing the shortage of minority teachers in New Jersey — a trend that exists nationwide — he also said, “There’s no secret that the majority of our staff is not diverse.”

As for such details as materials and desk sizes, Taylor added, “It’s those little pieces — we think about them all the time, along with our broad-scope design.”

In response to another comment about the existence of in-school breakfast service at Clinton Elementary and Seth Boyden Elementary schools — and nowhere else — Taylor said that he would ask Roth to work with food services to see “why and how we can make that more equitable.”

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