The Montclair Board of Education met last night, August 27, to preview the coming school year and the many new reforms to be implemented, many of which were designed with state mandates. Even after the regular public comment time ended, concerns and questions from the audience threatened to derail the meeting altogether, much to the chagrin of School Board President Robin Kulwin.
One resident said she had asked the district in July if testing was to be implemented in the 2013-14 school year, and was told that advanced placement (AP) students would not be getting tested this coming year owing to a time problem. “That means you’re not ready,” she said. “If they’re not all going to be tested, this is inappropriate.”
Schools Superintendent Penny MacCormack said that all students in the district would be assessed this coming year, be assessed regularly, and taught with curricula designed with Common Core State Standards. “I can assure you that our AP teachers that are here assess their students,” she said. “We didn’t write AP curricula, we won’t have interim common standards, but our AP students are assessed.”
The audience grew restless at what they interpreted to be non-answers and randomly pressed Dr. MacCormack for specifics without going to the podium in an orderly fashion. Residents wanted to know if everyone would receive the same level of testing or if AP students would be exempt. Dr. MacCormack repeated that assessments aligned to the curriculum are aligned to Common Core State Standards and AP courses were aligned to separate AP standards. She said an AP curriculum still needs to be developed for state standards adopted in 2010 as part of preparing for the state assessment that will occur in 2015 and she added that AP students could not be assessed collaboratively designed assessments designed for the rest of the student body. “It would be erroneous for us to sit and say those students aren’t going to be assessed, they are going to be assessed,” she said.
With members of the audience increasingly disruptive, both Dr. MacCormack and Mrs. Kulwin said they had to go to the resolutions to be voted on and promised to discuss testing concerns with residents after the adjournment. Only five board members had been present for the meeting, with Leslie Larson having attended via Skype and David Cummings and Norman Rosenblum absent. Ms. Larson’s signoff from Skype earlier in the meeting left only four board members, with Shelly Lombard needing to leave to leave to catch a flight at the airport. Before Mrs. Kulwin could call for votes, another audience member hijacked the podium and tried to question the Board’s overall testing plan and a bonding issue passed by the township council. Mrs. Kulwin, faced with the possibility of lacking a quorum with Mrs. Lombard’s impending departure, managed to keep the meeting together and have the various resolutions voted on and passed, but she was furious over the breakdown of order.
Teacher Implemented Curriculum and Assessments
The meeting had begun with greater enthusiasm for the coming year. Chief Academic Officer Gail Clarke told the board that teachers had worked diligently on lesson plans for the 2013-14 school year and would by Thanksgiving have all four units ready for each of the courses the new curriculum was written for. She added that interim assessments were designed together by the teachers that were meant to evaluate student growth. The assessments are designed to give the teachers feedback on how their students are learning.
Later, Chief Talent Officer Michelle Russell said that the professional development agenda for teachers would provide a framework with which to evaluate teachers that required greater observation. She said she wanted to make sure there was great support for both teachers and other school staff. Both women said they were aware of the anxiety being generated among teachers by so many new reforms at once, but they assured the board they were up to the challenge. Mrs. Clarke admitted it would not be easy.
“It’s a lot to take in,” she said. “We expect mistakes to be made, and we are looking forward to working with everyone. You can’t grow unless you know.”
Montclair Education Association President Gayl Shepard also voiced concern that the teachers might be overwhelmed with the breakneck pace of reform. Ms. Shepard said the new teacher evaluations were burdening a staff already burdened by state standards and the Common Core program. But she was very appreciative of the meetings she had with Ms. Clarke, Ms. Russell and Dr. MacCormack to go over the impending changes and she was grateful for the open communication she had with all of them. She said that the MEA was assured that there would be generous training during professional development days and ample opportunities for teacher feedback.
“The beauty of the core response that I had over the last three days, “ she said, “was that in all of those meetings, I said the same thing – ‘Please do not minimize the concerns that teachers are raising because their concerns are real.’ The objective here is to make sure that everyone clearly understands the anxiety that is being experienced with the new evaluation system and beyond.”
Residents who signed up for public comment and were duly recognized by the school board clearly got the message. Resident Luis Delgado spoke for many when he questioned the wisdom of implementing so many new standards on top of what is already mandated, which could transfer teacher anxiety to students like his own daughter. Delgado promised to attend monthly board meetings hereafter, and he called the state mandates “crazy.”
New Principals Named
Cenithia Bilal and Jill McLaughlin were unanimously approved as the new principals of, respectively, Northeast and Nishuane Elementary Schools by a vote of 5-0, with Ms. Larson voting through her Skype connection. Resident Regina Tuma made the only comment that night about Ms. Larson’s alleged conflict of interest in the April 8 approval of professional development workshops for Montclair teachers by Uncommon Schools Board, on which Ms. Larson’s husband Donald Katz sits, as reported in the Montclair Times. She said this was indicative of unchecked power that any board member can exercise to advocate any position, such as data-driven quarterly assessments. She said that if there was genuine debate discussion about such issues by the board, it was not transparent to the public.