The New York Times published an article on Friday, August 30 titled “A Suburb Believed in Liberal Ideals. Then Came a New Busing Plan” that described the district’s efforts to integrate its schools as part of a plan that will likely include, among other things, redistricting its elementary schools and busing some students to schools outside of their neighborhoods.
Focusing largely on Maplewood (while noting the school district also serves South Orange students), the article posited that while the town’s schools are generally high-performing and the town “seems a haven of diversity and progressiveness,” the desegregation effort is “challenging the town’s self-image, casting a harsh light on segregation and the stark achievement gaps between black and white students — and raising pointed questions about race and class.”
The reporter pointed to racial and economic disparities at Seth Boyden Elementary School, stating that the district has long had a policy of “allowing white parents to send their children there” in an attempt to rectify the racial imbalance. [To clarify, Seth Boyden is currently the only elementary school in the district that allows students in the two towns — of any race — the option to choose the school rather than attend the school for which they are zoned. In 2018, the administration also approved a measure to allow students zoned for Seth Boyden to “opt out” and attend Marshall-Jefferson schools.]
Former Interim Supt. Dr. Thomas Ficarra is quoted as saying, “To find a segregated elementary school in probably one of the most progressive towns in New Jersey, I mean, on the East Coast outside of New York, I don’t know how that happened there…It was astounding to me.” Current Supt. Dr. Ronald Taylor noted in the article that while the integration plan was still evolving and was “far from complete,’’ he is confident that once implemented it will help achieve racial equity.
Shortly after the article was published, it began heated discussions within the community and on social media. Some people took issue with the newspaper’s characterization that some Maplewood residents are opposed to busing. Others commended what they saw as a frank examination of the district’s longtime struggle to desegregate its school system.
The integration effort is part of a larger $160 million Long Range Facilities and Integration Plan that was passed by the Board of Education in 2018. The full integration component of the plan has yet to be released, although the district has been working on the details with the community and other stakeholders.
The Village Green plans to follow up on the article and the conversation it has spurred. Meanwhile, we reached out to the district for a statement and received the following response from Ann Bodner, SOMSD Director of Curriculum:
For the past year the South Orange/Maplewood School District leaders have been researching the many ways to integrate and reconfigure our elementary schools to ensure that they truly reflect the rich diversity of our two towns. Many administrators have made visits to White Plains, New York, Baltimore, Maryland, and Cambridge Massachusetts school districts to ask questions and get a better understanding of the process they use to integrate their schools. We have also taken time to review the Princeton Plan and Berkeley, California integration plans. We have and will continue to create partnerships with Montclair State and Rutgers Universities to learn best practices when doing this work.
As we continue to do our research and create an integration plan the district is committed to equity within our schools. Dr. Edward Fergus, Consultant, Temple University Professor and author of Solving Disproportionality and Achieving Equity: A Leader′s Guide to Using Data to Change Hearts and Minds was not only hired by the district to support us in creating our integration plan, but he is also working with our pre-school and elementary principals in leading their staff in becoming equity-driven schools through staff activities in his book. He will continue working with our pre-school and elementary principals this year and they will continue to turnkey and lead their schools in this very important equity work.
The Parenting Center has created a parent group who has come together often over the past year to begin to get a better understanding of the needs and thoughts of the community as we create our integration plan. Over the next year this group will host listening walks on small and large scales throughout South Orange and Maplewood so that the community will have the opportunity to have their voices’ heard. They will also host lectures and events with a focus on building community and sending the message that true integration is good for all students.
Now that Dr. Taylor has started as superintendent in the district we are able to bring our research and his experiences together and begin to find a plan that works for our unique community. We are committed to an integration plan that is data driven and ensures that our children will learn in a student centered environment that focuses on meeting the needs of all of our South Orange/Maplewood School District students.