Superintendent Penny MacCormack Visits Second Ward Community Meeting on Her Listening Tour

Penny MacCormack  and Robin SchlagerMontclair Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager held her second community meeting since regaining her Montclair Township Council seat in July 2012 at the Edgemont Park field house last night, where constituents brought up ward issues such as historic preservation and concerns involving municipal parks.  Councilor Schlager devoted the first thirty-seven minutes of the meeting, though, to her special guest, School Superintendent Penny MacCormack.

Dr. MacCormack explained that she was conducting a “listening tour” throughout the township, garnering feedback from residents.

Dr. MacCormack cited her vast experience as an educator, from her service as Chief Academic Officer at the New Jersey Department of Education to her various positions in Hartford, Connecticut, but said that alone was not enough for her new job.  “What I need to truly be ready in my mind for this position is to understand the community, understand the context,” she explained.  “Because I can know all the research and have all the knowledge I need, but I need to better understand the community I’m working in, in order to implement that well.”

She cited three fundamentals that guide her work in education: the belief that all children can learn based on hard work and application, continuous improvement of school systems, and the need to outline a specific, strategic plan to meet the goals of a school district that can be implemented.  She admitted, regarding the third point, that elements of a plan that are dropped once shown to be ineffective can be scary, because some district employees could lose jobs as a result.

Among the issues raised, a few of them were academic issues, while others brought up quality-of-life issues pertaining to the facilities.  Liza Cohn, a co-president of the Mount Hebron Middle School Parents Teachers Association (PTA), said that, with every child now having a feeder school to go, it’s important that each of the middle schools can embrace every kind of child rather than a specific sort, referring to cases where children are entered into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) schools.

“What happens is that, kids from those feeder elementaries feel like, ‘I’m not an engineering student, why should I have to be at that school?’ I think that every elementary school student should feel comfortable going that next level,” Cohn said.  She noted that the STEM sector is one of the six learning communities at the high school, and she felt that sending students from three elementary schools to a STEM middle school was not necessarily a good thing for all the students.

“Do I think it’s great that we would have a middle school that has an especially strong STEM component?  Yes, but I think as we consider the middle schools as a unit, I think each of them has to stand on their own,” Cohn added.  She added that each middle school draws strength from families that embrace them and feel comfortable in them, and that they should accommodate a more academically varied student body.

Selma Avdicevic, an unsuccessful candidate for Second Ward Councilor last year, asked about the proposal to hire deans of students, and Dr. MacCormack explained that, with principals asked to spend more time in classrooms to evaluate teachers, it would be beneficial to bring in lower-paid staffers to do the jobs that a highly paid principal doesn’t need to do.  Though Avdicevic appreciated Dr. MacCormack’s efforts to evaluate teachers, she suggested that a similarly serious consideration ought to be given to hiring a technology teacher at Watchung School, which currently doesn’t have one.  “For this school that is a science and technology magnet not to have a person teach technology is a little bit of a handicap, and we’re doing those children a disservice,” Avdicevic said.  She also made this much clear – contrary to the sentiments expressed at Monday’s school board meeting, she did not want to see tax increases to allow more school spending.

Nancy Iannace, a non-parent, expressed frustration that childless residents are not included in the conversation, when the schools affect everyone in the community.  She said that the individual schools themselves are part of their neighborhoods, and that those without children ought to be better informed of school expansions or field renovations that have an impact on local populations.

There was barely a mention of the ongoing deadlock in negotiations between the school board and the MEA teachers’ union, though resident Pat Kenschaft spoke out in favor of giving teacher’s aides health insurance.  Ms. Kenschaft, an environmentalist and local activist, also urged the school board to eliminate the use of leaf blowers on district properties.  In a related complaint, resident Phil Gordon complained about the “disgusting” accumulation of trash on the streets around Montclair High School from the local eateries students frequent at lunch.

Councilor Schlager admitted that this has been a problem for quite some time.  “The school has been very proactive about it,” she said.  “The principal sends out e-mails very often, reminding parents to please ask your kids to be respectful of the neighbors’ property.”  She added that Principal James Earle recognizes the high school as a neighbor to the adjacent homeowners and has personally asked students to be mindful of other people’s concerns.

“It doesn’t always work,” she lamented.

Councilor Schlager said the student cleanup crews and attempts to install trash receptacles in the neighborhood have been unsuccessful.  No one, however, suggested restricting students to high school grounds during lunch recess.

Dr. MacCormack, thankful for the feedback, left for another engagement, and the rest of the meeting was devoted to Second Ward issues, including the coming dredging project for Edgemont Park’s pond.  As the superintendent was leaving, however, Councilor Schlager focused her attention to Rand Park, adjacent to the high school’s George Inness Annex building.  She noted that many of the trees and bushes have been devastated by recent storms, along with a challenge course installed by the Greenwald family in honor of their late son David.  The town, the schools, and the Greenwalds are working in a partnership to install a patio, repave the walkways, and install trash cans and chessboard tables, along with a bush garden to attract butterflies, to make the park more appealing for students and other residents.

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  1. Sadly, it appears Dr. Maccormack is more interested in numbers than she is in students. This was sadly made obvious when she connected to Gail Clarke, who historically has made clear diversity is not her forte’ and was shuffled out of Watchung after offending many non-white families. If you are a person of minority status you might be welcomed if you are supported by the white power mom contingent. This has become a sad public fiasco. Our schools lack appropriate library/technology and foreign language programs and yet most Montclarians are not finding it highly offensive that there would be any suggestion to hire anyone at the BOE level considering how many deadbeats we have sitting there at high salaries because we are not able to fire them. I don’t expect those who comment here to agree with me, I read the usual suspects. However, know that there is a growing number of parents who are very unhappy who do not take time to post commentary here because of the domination of a few who comment here and on the other sites related to our town.

  2. I attended our school’s Family Math Night last night, so I missed this event. Thanks very much for the information! Many of the questions I wanted to ask are here, so I can follow-up if I ever manage to visit Ms. MacCormack in her office.

    I like that she is listening to residents, and I hope that it’s not just lip – or ear-service. On the other hand, residents need to remember that just because you’ve been heard doesn’t mean that it will be done.

  3. Great piece. Would love to see if the 3rd Ward will be holding (or has held-did I miss it?)a similar event with Dr. MacCormack. And good points from former candidate Avdicevic as well. Agree with her on both points.

  4. alic314: Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller had his first community meeting in December, and his next community meeting is on Wednesday, March 27, 2013 at 7:30 PM in the auditorium of the Montclair Public Library.

  5. I’ve watched and listened to the new superintendent (Penny MacCormack) quite a bit. Her listening tour appears to be for show. If you watch what she does and not what she says, you can clearly see the non-negotiable plan she’s forcing on Montclair.

    Dr. MacCormack’s strategy is all about more math and English to achieve the highest possible test scores on the new common core standardized tests. She’s taking teaching to the test to a whole new level, which will probably get results in that area. But the results will still lag the Chinese, who have a strategy to develop the whole child (brain). Everything else, music, arts, etc., will be minimized under MacCormack, which will widen the achievement gap. The rich kids will supplement her math and English focused curriculum. The poor kids will go without and be less ready for a global society.

    If she was really listening and open to suggestions, she would have had her listening tour and strategic plan presentation done before the school budget was released. Look what she’s pushing to get in the teacher negotiations and what she’s spending money on in the budget. That will tell you what the new superintendent is all about. The rest is all PR.

    A transparent approach would have been:
    1. Listen
    2. Write the strategic plan
    3. Present the plan
    4. Get feedback
    5. Edit plan
    6. present budget based on all of the above

    Disclaimer: I believe the Chinese, and many of the high achieving countries, are correct by developing the entire brain by cross-training with a well-balanced curriculum that values art, music, and languages. The Chinese do lead the world in the test results.

  6. Maybe the Chinese kids that actually step foot into a school building receive a well-balanced education but there are many more Chinese kids that never get that chance.