Montclair Schools Superintendent Dr. Penny MacCormack tried in vain to convince the critics that her two-year educational Strategic Plan would be effective in improving Montclair schools. Parents and students delivered petitions urging the Board not to adopt it so quickly, with more than 400 signatures from parents and 568 signatures from students. After an interminable and contentious meeting, the Board voted unanimously to adopt it anyway, much to the chagrin of opponents who stayed for the final vote.
During the meeting Dr. MacCormack presented yet another slide presentation on the plan, which included an emphasis on improving the transitions from middle school to high school, improving freshman-to-sophomore transitions in at Montclair High School itself, getting teachers up to 80 percent effectiveness on the Marshall Evaulation Rubric adopted earlier in the year, and—the main bone of contention at the night’s meeting—four common assessments on five basic subjects throughout the school year. Dr. MacCormack, responding to concerns that the assessments would standardize teaching to a test and discourage teachers from creative instruction, insisted that the assessments would reflect what students learn, not how they are taught. She stressed the public input into the plan over the course of several public meetings, and she also noted the importance of meeting the Common Core State Standards.
“We have new Common Core state standards that we will be held accountable to,” she said. “Most importantly, there are students who will take assessments aligned to . . . 2014-15. So while we’re feeling the pressure, we know, in 2014-15 our students will be sitting at a computer, taking an assessment that we want them to be prepared for.”
The Plan also calls for a restoration of K-5 World Language in all K-5 schools by this fall and will work to address Pre-K services in our district.
Reaction from opponents was swift and vocal in the public comment phase. Resident Regina Tuma of Montclair Cares About Schools presented the petition to the board and attempted to read it out loud, but Board President Robin Kulwin cut her off when Tuma went over her time; when Tuma protested, Kulwin angrily banged her gavel on the table. This set the tone for much of the rest of the night.
Opponents such as resident Maia Davis declared the plan to test students district-wide in every grade simultaneously to be “a top-down, overly prescriptive approach that is directly antithetical to creative teaching.” She insisted that teachers would have to design their lesson plans to the test.
Speaking on behalf of students, Celine Prell, a student at Montclair High School, also expressed worry that a test-driven system would strip the teachers of creativity, but she also charged that the students would be shortchanged by such a system and that their own education would suffer.
“Please don’t tell the students and the teachers how to do their jobs. Work with us; help us do better,” Celine said. “You talk about parent involvement, but what about student involvement? Aren’t we the ones that you’re trying to reach?”
Resident Reva Jaffe-Walter suggested that there might be a better alternative to the plan.
“Given the deep, progressive roots of Montclair, I really think that we could do better,” she said. “I think we can come up with more creative and effective ways to address the Common Core standards.” She cited how New York City tries to meet standards but allows teachers to meet the goals with their own methods. She found the plan to be vague and unclear.
Not all residents were opposed to the plan. Sue Weintraub was pleased with how the bar was being set higher for students and that teachers would be held to greater accountability. She also believed that the assessments would lead to a better understanding of which students would need more help and allow them to be targeted more easily by educators so that they could better succeed.
When the Board finally voted on the plan close to 11 pm, the Strategic Plan was passed unanimously. A group of opponents walked out, yelling, “Shame! Shame!” Shortly after the plan passed, Montclair Cares About Schools commented on their Facebook page that the board was “deaf to community concerns” and expressed disappointment over the BOE calling the community “misinformed”—a charge Dr. MacCormack had made repeatedly throughout the meeting. But Board member Tanya Coke, in announcing her intention to vote yes, said that she believed the plan would help close the 40 percent achievement gap between the lowest performing and highest performing students
Board member Shelly Lombard also commented that the plan would provide helpful, evaluative information that parents, teachers and students could use. She likened the standards for students to those of an architect.
“If I hire an architect to renovate my house, there are certain standards I expect,” she said. “And the architect can have a broad amount of creativity within certain standards. Obviously the house can’t fall down; obviously, I have to have a kitchen, I have to have bathrooms.”
Senior Leadership Team Appointments
Also at the meeting, Dr. MacCormack recommended, and the Board approved, four administrative positions: Dr. Felice Harrison as the district’s Chief Personnel Officer; Nishuane School principal Gail Clarke as Chief Academic Officer, Brian Fleischer as Chief Operating Officer, and Michelle Russell as Chief Talent Officer. Read more about each on the district’s website here.