Montclair BoE Meeting: Academic Plans, Morra Statement, Drug Use and Vandalism Report

BY  |  Tuesday, Nov 20, 2012 7:00am  |  COMMENTS (3)

New Superintendent Presents Plan
The Montclair Board of Education met on November 19 with newly installed Superintendent Dr. Penny MacCormack presiding for the first time. Dr. MacCormack took over on November 1 in the middle of the disruption caused by Hurricane Sandy, but she made it clear that she was hitting the ground running as Montclair’s new school superintendent.

“I come to you as an educator who has held multiple positions in education,” she said.  “All of those opportunities and experiences have allowed me to gain the expertise and skills and knowledge I need to be a good superintendent and a good leader.  But what I really need to know now is specifics about the contest here in Montclair.”  She pledged to continue working with the district and meeting with teachers and students to keep improving the schools.

Dr. MacCormack  presented an ambitious plan at the school board meeting to get students on a stronger track to academic excellence and prepare them for college and careers. She presented a series of academic benchmarks called the Common Core standards, which have been adopted by the state and are designed to make students more proficient in reading, mathematics and geometry. Recognized as being more rigorous and more basic and matching international benchmarks, the new superintendent noted that 45 states (including New Jersey) and the District of Columbia have adopted them in an effort to keep American students from falling behind students of other countries.

Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Barbara Weller described the Common Core standards as a “major shift” in how students are taught.  The new reading benchmarks require students to grasp the meaning of complex text and build their knowledge and comprehensive skills from reading materials heavy in content. Children would be encouraged to use illustrations, dictating and writing to state opinions on topics and convey and understanding of the topics as early as kindergarten.  Mathematics would require more sophisticated problem solving beyond the rote memorizing of multiplication tables, while geometry lessons would require students to understand and explain the Pythagorean Theorem of geometry more coherently.  Assessments of student progress would be made through the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a consortium that includes New Jersey, 22 other states and the District of Columbia by the 2014-15 school year.

“We used to be a system where we had students on a college track and students on a vocational track.  And that was okay at the time, because on the vocational track, you could get a good paying job, own a home, support a family,” Dr. MacCormack explained.  “But those kinds of careers are gone.  And what we find are, the careers and jobs out there require the same skills and knowledge as if you were going to college.”

Board member Norman Rosenblum had praise for the emphasis on the curriculum in the conversations.  “I’m not 100 percent sold,” he said of the reforms that have been suggested, “but I love the idea that we’re talking about it.”

Samantha Morra Case
The Samantha Morra case came up again when William Nossen, the lawyer from the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association who represents Ms. Morra, offered a detailed account of Ms. Morra’s acknowledgement of her Little Falls residence from the moment she was asked about her children attending public school in Montclair in explaining her understanding that then-Superintendent Dr. Frank Alvarez allowed it.  Board President Robin Kulwin did not allow him to finish his prepared statement owing to time constraints, and this was the only mention of the Morra case in the meeting.

Read Mr. Nossen’s full statement in three parts here: Page 1, Page 2, and Page 3.

Drug Use, Vandalsim and Violence in the Schools
Dr. Felice Harrison, Assistant to the Superintendent, offered commentary on a more sobering subject, that of vandalism of violence.  She noted that many categories of vandalism and violence had had zero instances recorded, and she also reported that instances assault, criminal threat, robbery, arson and theft had all decreased from the 2010-11 school year to 2011-12.  Dr. Harrison also reported, though, that extortion, bullying, damage to property, trespassing, weapons and substance abuse had increased in that same time.  The statistics showed that the number of incidents of vandalism and violence were still relatively low, and Dr. Harrison added that three more students (22, up from 19) committed offenses in the 2011-12 school year than the year before.

Seven confirmed cases of possession of controlled substances by students in the schools took place during the 2011-2012 academic year. Her biggest concern was the growth of use of synthetic marijuana use in the school system, and she informed the school board of plans to hold a follow-up forum for parents of middle school students after having had a forum for middle school and high school parents in April.  The follow-up, originally scheduled for November 15, has been postponed until December or January.

“We’re finding that students are using more of this synthetic marijuana,” Dr. Harrison said, “and it’s a serious issue because it’s not harmless.”


  1. POSTED BY profwilliams  |  November 20, 2012 @ 9:52 am

    With a the little prof in the system, reading this gives me comfort that he’s in good hands.

    This is an exciting beginning. I wish her, the staff, faculty and students all my best in this challenge. Some of these changes seem obvious, but her clear statement encourages me. Though, rote memorization should not be seen as being mutually exclusive of a deeper understanding– we all memorized the ABC song, yet are able to create meaningful sentences from it. (Though I always question any general “test” comparison between the very diverse US with other, mostly homogeneous Countries).

    And while writing, reading and math are important, I hope the arts are not pushed aside, or thought to be “less” important. With the arts comes an understanding of history, people and expression. Moreover, for many kids, it is the Arts and self-expression that they find their paths.

    Steve Jobs stated that as a dropout he would sit in on college classes he liked:
    “I decided to take a calligraphy class…I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle…and I found it fascinating.”… “When we were designing the first Macintosh computer, [what I learned in that class] all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac.”

    I would also add that for ALL of this to work, teachers must continue to be empowered, listened to, challenged and given clear objectives.

    Again, I wish her well and look forward to hearing more about her plans, the implementation and progress.

  2. POSTED BY agideon  |  November 20, 2012 @ 10:27 am

    I’m sorry that the presentation given by Drs. MacCormack and Weller isn’t yet online. It offered a few comparisons between old and new curricula, and – assuming that they’re not outliers – it was an illustrative comparison. One difference I immediately noticed in the discussion of right triangles is that only the new curriculum requires that the student be able to prove the Pythagorean Theorem; not just explain it. Since the idea of forming a proof is central to “real life”, I’m strongly in favor of that.

    There was also mention of a goal in Language Arts that students be able to collect information and use it to form a cogent argument (the text in the presentation was more precise; I’m working from memory). Again: a crucial “real life” skill (of which we should be especially aware just coming out of this past election season {8^).

    Dr. MacCormack did specifically say that memorization was not being replaced; students would still be required to learn the multiplication table, for example. Another point made, though, is that the new curriculum requires that students be taught the “linkages” between ideas. So, presumably, they’d be taught how having that tool – ready access in one’s head to the multiplication table – facilitates subsequent arithmetic and other maths.


  3. POSTED BY agideon  |  November 20, 2012 @ 10:49 am

    On the subject of the presentation about violence, Dr. Harrison reported that, in 2011-2012, there were two students responsible for more than a single incident. This apparently prompted one of the BOE members to ask if there was any similar tracking across years. The answer was an oddly abrupt “no”. When the member elaborated on the question, Dr. Harrison replied “I know what you’re saying”.

    There were several points during the meeting when our Business Administrator or Superintendent were asked to elaborate on or respond to some point or question to which they were not immediately able to reply. In each of those cases, a promise was made to get the details or answer and provide them at some future time.

    Nothing like that was forthcoming here. On the other hand, there was no explicit request for this to be done either. I got the feeling that there was a subtext to the conversation that I was completely missing.


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