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Updated: SOMSD and Dept. of Ed Reach Agreement on Civil Rights Review

Correction: District spokeswoman Suzanne Turner has clarified that the agreement referred to in the article relates not to a recent complaint against SOMSD by the ACLU and Center for Civil Rights Remedies of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, but to an earlier compliance review issued by the U.S. Dept. of Education. 

The previous complaint, “raised similar concerns regarding academic placement,” said Turner.

We have updated the article and will provide further updates as we receive more information from the district.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the South Orange – Maplewood School District (SOMSD) have entered into an agreement regarding a complaint that alleged the district does not provide equal access for black students to participate in advanced and higher-level learning opportunities.

Among other things, the district has agreed to hire a consultant to help determine whether SOMSD should consider revising or expanding eligibility and selection criteria for higher level classes; improve its outreach to parents and students; and consider whether it should make changes to its staff and administrative training.

On October 10, the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of New Jersey, and the Center for Civil Rights Remedies of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, charged that “the school district’s tracking and discipline practices disproportionately confine students of color to lower-level classes and punish students of color and students with disabilities to a greater degree.”

Just days after the October complaint was filed, Acting Superintendent James Memoli said the district was “eager to partner with anyone who can help us accelerate our work.” At an October 21 Board of Education meeting, Memoli said the district would work to deal with the “problems and issues” raised in the complaint.

“While I am encouraged that the U.S. Department of Education has launched this compliance review, the Resolution Agreement does not fully address the issues raised in the ACLU/UCLA Civil Rights Project complaint on tracking and does not address racial disparities in student discipline,” said Walter Fields, of SOMA Black Parents Workshop, in an email. “The ACLU/UCLA Civil Rights Project complaint remains an open investigation and I look forward to discussions with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights and the school district regarding the extensive remedies needed to assure equity in the district.”

The OCR, which announced the agreement Tuesday, said its investigation showed that the district’s nearly 2,500 black students “are significantly underrepresented in advanced” and enrichment classes in the elementary, middle and high school levels.

For instance, the investigation found, although black students make up more than half the population at Columbia High School, in the 2012-13 school year, only 148 of the 800 spots in the district’s Advanced Placement (AP) courses were filled by black students.

The OCR acknowledged that the district had already voluntarily entered into an agreement prior to the resolution and lauded the “significant steps” it has already taken to expand opportunities for students, including reducing leveling, revising the criteria for AP enrollment, enhancing teacher professional development, and the “rigorous, inquiry-based curriculum in its new International Baccalaureate (IB) Middle Years Program to prepare its students for college preparatory courses at the high school.”

“I applaud the district’s efforts to reinvigorate its course and program offerings to ensure that all of its students have an equal opportunity to reach their academic potential and equal access to a high quality education,” said Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights.

The resolution letter is attached as a PDF here. 

Download (PDF, 321KB)

The full agreement is attached as a PDF here. 

Download (PDF, 204KB)

As part of the resolution, the district has agreed to:

  • Work with an expert consultant; obtain feedback from students, parents and staff; and conduct a comprehensive self-assessment of its current programs and courses to identify any potential barriers;
  • Consider expanding criteria to determine eligibility and selection for enrollment;
  • Expand student, parent, and community outreach about the available courses and programs;
  • Make improvements to the academic counseling services at the middle and high school levels; and
  • Provide training for relevant district and school site administrators and personnel.

In addition, the district will report to OCR, which will monitor its progress.

The Village Green has reached out to SOMSD for comment on the resolution and agreement.

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