The summer doldrums were evident at Monday night’s Montclair Board of Education meeting, which was attended by less than two dozen residents and four out of seven board members and lasted just an hour. The majority of that hour consisted of Montclair Public Schools Superintendent Penny MacCormack’s first progress report on the district’s two-year Strategic Plan. Board members David Cummings, Leslie Larson and Anne Mernin were absent.
Communications and Parent Engagement
Superintendent MacCormack’s first progress report focused on the fourth goal of the Strategic Plan: effective internal and external communications and parent engagement.
The presentation focused on what was achieved in this area during the 2013-14 school year, and what to expect for the upcoming school year.
The district conducted surveys and held focus groups to discover what parents wanted communicated and set out to develop and implement the best ways to share information, as well as a system to evaluate the communication plan, MacCormack explained. As a result, a Montclair High School specific website will be launched at the start of the school year and interviews will soon begin for the position of Communication Lead. Live board meetings will also be available online for streaming beginning with the September 22 meeting, MacCormack said.
Staff communication needs were also identified through focus groups and surveys. In 2013-14, the district added back SML/Curriculum Coaches and Content Leaders at the high school and created Professional Development surveys. Last year, each school was required to develop a family engagement strategy. Some of the new strategies to encourage participation include, holding parent meetings outside schools, providing childcare, meals and transportation, and having parents initiate meetings. “Taking care of all the things that sometimes get in the way,” MacCormack explained. In the coming school year, each school will be required to implement an additional strategy.
Policy and procedures concerning communication expectations between staff and families are also being created as part of the Strategic Plan. This includes response times, training on how to communicate well with families, expectations for electronic communication, and social media standards and safeguards. In the last school year, principals were required to respond to families in 24 to 48 hours.
The district has additionally focused on providing school-level family engagement, from providing clear academic goals for each student to timely monitoring of learning to identify problems to extra supports for struggling students, such as programs to prevent summer learning loss and enrichment before, during and after school.
In 2014-15, the district will introduce Response to Intervention (RTI), a system for informing all interventions, including programs, tutoring and summer interventions. “I think it’s a common sense approach to the reality of K-12 education,” MacCormack said. While each grade level has its benchmarks, she said, students come with different skill sets, needs and capacities. “It is our hope that our RTI system helps us to create more coherence in the way we address struggling students,” she said. “The best strategy is to intervene as early as possible, and that is the focus of RTI.”
The district introduced the Skyward Student Information System and in 2013-14 was able to use the system to communicate to specific groups of parents, by school, grade, special education needs, or any criteria that’s in Skyward. Communications based on bus routes will be added this coming school year.
The objectives of the Strategic Plan are meant to be measurable in June 2015. The goals are for families, students and community members to rate communication as effective or highly effective, for staff to rate communication as effective or highly effective, and to increase district and school website use by 20%. MacCormack said the district does not currently have a system for tracking website traffic, but is looking into it.
Two parents approached the district during the public comments session to express their dissatisfaction with the kindergarten assignment process.
District father Oguz Ozsahin discussed the challenges of having his child assigned to a school 3.5 miles from his home when he and his wife both work in New York City. Ozsahin, who said their child’s caretaker does not drive, said he would not be able to pick up his son in the required two hours in the case of an emergency closing. He also said the distance would prohibit continuing to send his child to a school where he learns French, his mother’s native language.
Another parent, Sarah Derba, said she plans to move out of Montclair to Glen Ridge because of the kindergarten assignment given to her child, their fifth choice. “We were told Montclair schools have a magnet system and we have a choice of school. A choice isn’t here’s six schools and you get to put them in an order and then we choose one for you,” she said. Derba called the magnet system “dated” and said the other families she knows who got fifth choice are multiracial like hers and questioned how that could be a coincidence. She said her husband was unable to get a meeting with central office after numerous emails and phone calls. “I have two kids that are going to spend two decades in this school system and you can’t give us a 20 minute meeting?” she asked.
More Public Comments
Regina Tuma, founder of Montclair Cares About Schools, asked several questions about the superintendent’s presentation, but they weren’t answered because the three-minute period, Board President David Deutsch explained, is for comment only. Tuma asked how much time the Communication Lead would spend on the Strategic Plan. She also asked how the district would define which students were “struggling” and in need of after-school help. “What would be different after school rather than during the day? What will you do so the student does not see it as punishment? If you do more of the same, it might not work,” she said.
Pulling students from “fun classes” to focus on more math and language arts didn’t work for her son, Marcella Simadiris told the board when it was her turn at the podium. The district mom requested that after-school programs be implemented instead.
Nicole Farjani, a teacher’s aide in the district and parent of an incoming seventh grader, expressed her concern over the new position of Communication Lead. “I’m always focused on the well-being of our students and I’m trying to figure out how a communications person directly helps our students,” Farjani said. She said the district could use more people on staff to work hands-on with students and is concerned that the Communications Lead will take away from funds which could be used in classrooms.
On another topic, Farjani said she would likely opt-out her son from the new state-mandated test, PARCC. “It seemed like the whole (last) year was basically test prep,” she said, later adding, “My concern is that my child will spend the whole year preparing for a test he will never take.”
Committee reports were tabled until the next meeting because of the absence of three board members.
The next meeting of the Montclair Board of Education will be held on Monday, September 22, at 6:30 p.m., in the Auditorium of Montclair High School, 100 Chestnut Street.