The Achievement Gap Advisory Panel presented their findings to a packed house of parents, teachers and other interested parties at the George Inness Atrium at Montclair High School on Tuesday night. Panel members summarized the report’s findings, reviewed their recommendations and answered questions from the audience. Montclair Superintendent of Schools Ronald E. Bolandi was also on hand to answer questions.
The panel’s primary recommendation—the appointment of an assistant superintendent of equity and achievement to serve in the Montclair superintendent’s cabinet—drew skeptical comments from some of the attendees who asked why another layer of bureaucracy was needed. The panel responded by stressing the need for one person to oversee the execution of the recommendations and be accountable for effectively addressing the situation.
Jonathan Simon, chairman of the panel, started the session by thanking Nina DeRosa, executive assistant to the Superintendent, and Lois Whipple, executive director of the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence for their support in making this presentation a reality.
Simon then introduced the presentation by summarizing how it was developed.
“This committee is pleased to be in front of you at the culmination of 18 months of almost 400 hours to formulate a comprehensive set of recommendations for what has been termed the achievement gap. We’ve engaged with parents through our two community sharing forums, our subcommittees met with the principles of our schools, we met with town clergy, our town council, the mayor, NAACP leadership, the Board of Education, the Montclair Education Association and the Civil Rights Committee. We received emails from parents, caregivers and activists, and we studied academic research and our local data and lastly debated nationwide best practices and success stories to determine what is relevant for Montclair,” he said.
Panel member David Troutt made a few introductory comments to give context to the data saying “there is a lingering aspect of two different fates. As some students enjoy college admissions and go on to stellar careers, others simply don’t have those opportunities. It’s a story where those outcomes become clear at 17 or 18, but in some ways are foreshadowed when these children enter kindergarten.” Troutt went on to explain how by the time kids reach third grade, paths of white and African American students diverge. Paths also split at fifth and eighth grade too. Many students who fall behind cannot catch up.
Report Lays Out Achievement Gap
Panel member George Glass guided the audience through an extensive overview of the report’s data. Focusing on the high school, middle school and elementary school. The high school has a racial breakdown of 49 percent white, 36 percent black, 8 percent Hispanic and 6 percent Asian. To illustrate his point about the achievement gap, Glass focused on a slide that starkly laid out the disparity—for grade 12, 158 white students were in the top 50 percent, compared to 45 African American students; 57 white students were in the bottom 50 percent, while 149 African American students were in the bottom 50 percent.
Glass explained how important taking advanced placement courses is to a student’s career and how the path to AP math courses starts in the 10 grade where students on the AP track are taking higher level Geometry/Trigonometry courses. To drive home the point that admission into advanced math classes requires students to take advanced math classes years ahead, Glass showed this slide, which is enough to make your head explode.
This slide on the racial composition of 11th and 12th grade AP courses also shows the disparity between black and white students.
Suspension Rates in Montclair
Panel member Peter Keating, reviewed the report’s findings on suspension rates, which again showed major differences between white and black students.
While the overall number of suspensions in declining, there’s still a high number of black students suspended compared to white students.
“The data comprises some disturbing disparities,” said Keating. You’ll see here in the last year we have data, 2012-2013, 33 African American students were suspended in high school compared with five white students. In South Orange and Maplewood, a difference of 10 or 15 percent was enough to trigger legal action. Here we’re talking about a differential of eight or nine times. Why this is so important is that time spent in the classroom is one of the most important predictors of academic performance. Just one suspension by ninth grade is associated with a dramatically increased chance of a student dropping out. Every suspension makes it harder for students to catch up.”
Glass reviewed the racial composition of Montclair’s Middle Schools before launching into the data. Middle school students are 49 percent white, 32 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic and 7 percent Asian.
“Kids really start to separate in terms of performance in grades 6, 7, 8,” said Glass.
Regarding the suspension rate for black students, the report showed that African American students consistently represent more than 70 percent of school suspensions, while representing only 32 percent of the total middle school population. Special Ed students show disproportionality relative to general education students according to the report.
Panel member Paula White tried to put the panel’s findings into context. “We recognize and focus on significant and undeniable gaps in achievement in our school system, but this is not to imply that there aren’t African American students experiencing success. Nor is it meant to imply that all of our white children are being adequately served or are excelling, but we are focusing on undeniable gaps. The second point I’d like to make is there are great things happening right now in the Montclair Public School. District. Our intent is to provide recommendations that will lead to the standardization of excellent practices.”
Glass said reading and writing proficiency are critical for students to attain in the third grade. Failure to do so can impact a student’s career into high school. The slide below shows the data for third grade reading proficiency. Ninety percent of white children are reading proficiently compared to 60 percent of black children and 68 percent of Hispanic children.
While the suspension rate in elementary school has gone down in recent years, it still is disproportionately high for black students.
Based on the report’s findings, the panel made the following recommendation to address the achievement gap in Montclair schools.
“Our first recommendation is the appointment of an Assistant Superintendent of Equity and Achievement to serve in the Montclair Superintendent’s cabinet. This full-time educator-official will have as their sole responsibility the task of overseeing the implementation of these and other reforms, the authority to monitor compliance at the school level and the institutional capacity to coordinate best practices across the district. ”
Additional list of recommendations here, starting on page 43, include:
* Reviewing Longitudinal Achievement Data.
* Supporting Marshall Rubric Teacher Evaluations.
* Principal Town Halls for School Performance Reports.
* Quarterly Progress Monitoring for schools with Large Gaps.
* Standardizing the Process for New Academic Programs.
Reviewing Response to Intervention (RTI) Policy.
* Algebra Readiness. Administer the algebra readiness exam to all fifth grade students; Allow 5th grade teachers or caregivers to recommend a student for Algebra in 6th grade.
* Math Readiness. Provide a year of Algebra instruction to all students by the end of 8th grade.
* Reaching for Advanced Placement. Increase the numbers of students from populations who are underrepresented in Honors, High Honors and Advanced Placement (AP) classes with appropriate support identified, scaled, and funded, e.g. tutoring services through community partners; require any student from a population that is underrepresented in a higher level course, who receives an “A” or “B” in a lower level courses to have a timely meeting with a staff member and caregiver about upgrading to a higher level course in that subject area.
* Sensible Universal Suspension Policies. Develop a universal suspension policy related to non-violent offenses; Ensure that disciplinary policies are implemented consistently District-wide and are followed; Ensure that an intervention process is adhered to before any suspension decisions are made.
* Independent Race Bias and Cultural Competency Assessments. Conduct a search process to identify, a provider of racial, unconscious bias, equity and cultural competency assessment and embed these elements into the professional development requirements for all staff; ensure the provider embeds the historical and contemporary impacts that racism has had on student outcomes and student success.
According to the report, the committee is planning these next steps to promote and execute their recommendations:
Schedule a deeper dive on the data for parents and caregivers for Fall 2015.
Work with the Superintendent, BOE, MPSD COO, and Town Council (Education Subcommittee) to develop a multi-year funding strategy.
Present to the Board of Education at a future date.
Engage key community partners in a series of sessions to implement the Intercommunity Council – outline roles, responsibilities, deliverables and outcomes in September.
Recruit new AGAP members who are interested in joining the next phase of the work
Organize a meeting with the SATP leadership to review the recommendations.
Regarding funding, Simon mentioned “We’ll be working with Dr. Bolandi, the town council and the Board to map out a funding strategy. While some are low hanging fruit, there will be a need to have additional funding for the budget, particularly the position. We happen to know there’s a number of resources in the educational sphere for example…we’re going to look to see if we as a district can apply for those funds. The Ford Foundation just announced a big approach to look at inequality. We believe that much of this work can be done in a thoughtful and deliberate way without necessarily having to fall on the backs of all of you as taxpayers.”
During the Q&A session, attendees brought up both reactions to the presentation and concerns.
An attendee asked about the dearth of black teachers at the Bullock School, Superintendent Bolandi responded.
“We’re going to start that and I agree with you wholeheartedly. Your staff has to reflect your population. How you do that…Were going to do minority recruitment, which we haven’t done here in I don’t know how long….I’ve done this work. You’re looking at someone who is actually changed the complexion of the staff. I’m going to do that in the coming school year. How do you put a check and balance on it, because that’s really important. This year, starting now, that every person that’s going to be recommended, has to come to see me. If I don’t see what I want to see, I’m sending them back and I’m going to ask how many people did you interview, how did you interview? Like I said to you before, I don’t talk, I do. Forty years of doing. We need to do that. It’s not going to be perfect Next year I will guarantee you our recruitment process for administrators, teachers anybody in the system, will have a check and balance.
Another attendee addressed the panel and drew applause from the audience when he asked “When are you going to try and attract the kind of people who are solving problems in Elizabeth?”
Elise Body offered this perspective to the panel, by asking “Can we start to think about who has the ability to learn as opposed to where they are situated in a track that is designed to reinforce kids who are already advantaged? And are there ways to disrupt the tracking system and pipeline, so that if you are off the track you can make your way back on?”
John Greenburg asked the panel to produce more socioeconomic information on the achievement gap and added that “[closing the gap] is going to take resources and maybe that’s the elephant in the room. I hear people complain about the achievement gap in the same breath they complain about their property taxes and home values.”
In closing, Simon reminded attendees a limited number of printed reports were available at the event. Additionally the panel would post a PDF of the full report to their website at: https://www.montclair.k12.nj.us/WebPage.aspx?Id=2255. Interested parties could also view the report upon request at Montclair’s Public Libraries.