Montclair High School’s CGI and CSJ Leaders Discuss Programs’ Lack of Diversity

Montclair-High-School-CGI-CSJMontclair High School’s diversity is reflected in its student body, and in its motto: “Children our future, Diversity our strength.”

Founded in 1997, the Civics and Government Institute (CGI) at Montclair High School has offered a small learning community within the school, focusing on citizenship, government, and social issues. CGI has gained notoriety for many of its initiatives and activism, including three students who petitioned for a female moderator at the last U.S. presidential debate. But CGI has a reputation for its lack of diversity. James Harris, 1st vice president, Montclair NAACP, called for “the racial segregation to be addressed” at the May 19 BOE meeting.

Christian Miller, current CGI president, acknowledges there is a diversity problem. “There is the stigma of it [CGI] being a predominantly white community,” says CGI senior James Pew. Those factors influence many students’ opinions of CGI and may cause them to feel like they would not fit into the program. “Montclair prides itself on being a diverse community,” says Miller, “the fact CGI is not diverse is a problem because it shows that in our schools there are people who still feel they won’t be welcome in a certain environment.”

Within the school, CGI also has a reputation of being very stressful, while others stereotype its members as opinionated political junkies.

Less Diversity Equals Less Understanding

The diversity issue within CGI creates more than just an image problem. The dearth of different views can impede on a student’s ability to fully understand all sides of the issues he or she learns about in class. CGI teacher Sally Rembert says the misrepresentation of certain voices makes some issues “hard to grasp.” Because CGI is a relatively homogeneous environment, students are not necessarily presented with opinions or sentiments that differ from their own. While the teachers and books in the curriculum can attempt to compensate for this lack of diversity, having students from various backgrounds provide their opinions would make the program more robust. “Without voices in the room, you are lacking,” says Rembert. A variety of voices from various backgrounds helps the students who are distanced from certain issues become more thoughtful and empathetic.

While CGI’s diversity issue attracts more attention, the high school’s other learning community, the Center for Social Justice (CSJ), has a similar diversity problem. CSJ explores issues dealing with human rights and other social issues with the goal of educating students about the injustices that have plagued society for years.

“CSJ teaches about really relevant and important topics to teach teenagers to recognize discrimination when they see it and find ways to stop it in the future,” says Giovanna Boyle, CSJ junior. The emphasis on social activism is more approachable and appealing to a wider range of people than the political nature of CGI, yet CSJ is still not as diverse as one would expect, having a more predominant representation of African American students.

“Our small learning communities are, for the most part divided by race,” says lead CGI teacher Andrea McLaughlin, however this is not due to a lack of effort. According to Rembert, the diversity issue has “always been part of what we (the teachers) discuss.” CGI has called in numerous experts from organizations like the NAACP to aid in better understanding diversity and self-segregation as well as provide potential solutions.

Recruitment, Legacy Contribute to Homogeneity

Part of the issue with diversity in CGI stems from the recruitment process. Freshmen at MHS are informed about CGI and CSJ by students who are currently enrolled in those programs.

“Freshman year students came around and talked about CGI and CSJ,” recalls CGI senior Anissa Matthews. “They said CSJ focused on ‘isms’ like sexism and racism, while CGI was more government based.” Further pressure to join the small learning communities then comes from other students, typically siblings or older friends.

In the case of CGI, family ties to the programs played an important role in a student’s enrollment decision. Older siblings with positive experiences frequently influence younger siblings and those siblings’ friends into joining. That focus on legacy fuels the diversity issue because CGI is historically predominantly white. As a result more white students are recruited compared to minority students. There have also been accounts of students discouraging minorities from joining CGI.

“I remember one time we were having a group discussion about these issues [of diversity]” recalls Pew, “one of maybe 15 students of color in the institute stood up to share with us how she had been discouraged from joining CGI because of the color of her skin, and how she was still followed by the stigma of being out of place.”

While many of the factors contributing to the lack of diversity in CGI and CSJ are obvious, the solution is less clear. Reforming the recruitment process is one of the methods administrators and students alike have focused on in an attempt to bridge the racial divide.

“While I was president I tried to combat the lack of diversity by modifying the recruiting process and reaching out to CSJ to build better community connections” says Miller. Additionally McLaughlin has said CGI has started to reach out to students through their eighth grade teachers and coordinate a better parent outreach program. Despite these efforts McLaughlin notes “it may take time.”

Even though it has been a longstanding problem, the diversity issue in CGI has only recently attracted the attention of people outside the institute. This attention has facilitated a more active effort in attacking the problem.

Still, the issue of diversity in CGI is, as Rembert puts it, “indicative of a larger issue,” concerning diversity that spans the whole school district. “The lack of diversity plays itself out in the two small learning communities” says McLaughlin as CGI and CSJ serve as microcosms that highlight the issues of classroom diversity occurring at the high school.

Recognition and attention have resulted in attempts to address this issue. Acknowledging the need to promote diversity in CGI and CSJ is also a step toward tackling the larger diversity issues that are part of the high school and school district.

Benner Rawley is a Montclair high school senior and president of the MHS student body. Baristanet is pleased to mentor Rawley as part of Montclair High School’s Career Internship Program.

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  1. Quite a few years ago, when my daughter was a freshman, we went to the fair that was set up to look at CGI and CSJ. Not understanding the full difference between the two institutes, I asked the teacher who was staffing the CSJ table. His reply? “Black kids go to CSJ and white kids go to CGI”. I was so stunned I didn’t know how to respond – we simply walked away.

  2. Great story, Benner.

    You are a great addition and giving your sister, who I believe also wrote for Baristanet, a run for her money.

    I’m not surprised by this. This is right up there with “all the Black kids eating together in the cafeteria.” For many Black kids, feeling comfortable with others like them is the issue. Seeing a program that appears to be “White” is enough for even those easily capable of the work, from staying away. Why? Fear of being the only Black kid. And the fear of being seen by other Black kids as trying to “be White.”

    I’d also point to college majors. There you see there is also a lack of diversity in many majors. Some of it is linked to what I suggested above. But it also touches on Black kids being more engaged in those classes that discuss “ism’s.” Whereas White kids don’t have to carry the burden on race and are free to not worry about it. And- go figure: women choose majors the earn less money then men.

    I teach a course dealing with Representation, and can see the White guys in the class sink lower and lower because it appears that no matter what– they are the blame. I bring this up, and they all perk up, agreeing, creating a great conversation about being the “holder” of your race or gender. This semester, I only had one women in class. Same thing. And when I’ve only had one Black kid, same. (I use trigger warnings and speak to students outside of class, which creates a comfortable environment for deep discussions of race, gender and sexuality).

    But other than forcing folks to enter programs they don’t want to take, what the problem? When you have choice, be prepared when those choices do not yield a “balanced” population.

    All you can do is make sure that folks have equal access. Or get rid of these small communities, balance them by race, gender and socioeconomics.

  3. glad to see student voice discussing an important issue

    @kob62 – i’ve done that table for CSJ a few times – come on over and you’ll get a very different answer, no matter the demographics…. though it should be said, demographically speaking, we’re pretty diverse these days

  4. Very refreshing piece, enjoyed ‘hearing’ this new voice! I do wonder, especially as a Montclair taxpayer (which makes me in some way responsible for their achievement), how Montclair’s children’s academic and social outcomes might improve on the whole and for individuals if Montclair Public Schools’ focus was shifted FROM diversity TO disciplined academic teaching, learning, competence and subject-area mastery of traditional high-school level liberal arts and trade/technical curricula. For example, the instruction, study and mastery of Math, the Classics and Auto Mechanics/Robotics are gender-, race- and class-blind. Once you insert these other filters into the classroom, engaged time spent on task shifts the focus away from, for example, mastering quadratic equations, the Krebs Cycle, or the content/history of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Time is a resource that cannot be recaptured. Even in this capstone article for Rawley, his subject at the end of his senior year is not a proud recap of what CGI and CSJ students are studying, mastering and producing, with hopes for their, their families’ and society’s futures, but about this other, irresolute thing called diversity. Separately, congratulations & much success to Rawley and classmates at this special moment in their lives and going forward!

  5. i couldn’t disagree more, maureen… first, we focus on both; second, the two are not mutually exclusive – you imply an either/or; third, i’d argue they are inextricable – narrow content achievement without attention to diversity, equity, and justice is hollow; fourth, therefore these so-called “filters” are not add-ons but should be a priori concerns for anyone truly interested in real education… and fifth, NOTHING is race- class- gender- sexuality- ability- language- blind….NOTHING

  6. “NOTHING is race- class- gender- sexuality- ability- language- blind….NOTHING”
    I couldn’t disagree more!! Many things are (actually pretty much everything) and I think it would behoove young minds to be told that nothing can hold them back instead of giving them excuses. For example a pitcher’s mound is 60’6″ from home plate for everyone. Throw 90 mph and no one cares who you are or what you look like. Just do it better than everyone else. That pretty much goes for any career….do it better than everyone else and you will succeed. I will admit if you are looking for something handed to you then yea I agree the rich pretty and handsome ones will have an advantage….or in some cases a disadvantage because they may never reach their potential and gain a sense of accomplishment. I am not envious of them…I pity them.
    This is America and it still is the land of opportunity…”if you can’t join ’em, beat ’em.”

  7. iteach is right on the money.

    Maureen, you seem to hold that old belief that IF stated goal includes the word “diversity,” than the “study and mastery” of a subject cannot be had.

    I would love to see some evidence of this because it goes against much of what I’ve read.

  8. I think the prof’s post was a good one. iteachthereforeiam’s statement about how these SLCs are pretty demographically diverse seems to contradict the article. Which is more accurate of the current state?

    Anyway, in reconciling wanting both goals of choice and diversity, the solution might be more of an issue with the teachers adjusting than the students. It brings to mind a quote cited on a recent thread,“If they can’t learn the way we teach, we teach the way they learn”. One of my more memorable college courses was an American History class (a throw-away course) taught at a Steel Belt state school by a non-resident professor. His basic approach was to teach the subject from the viewpoints of other foreign cultures. The instructor made clear he didn’t care if his students liked him or rated him highly at the end of the course. As you may imagine, the class got off to a rocky start, but once the deadline passed for transferring out and the course progressed, it became a highly participatory, atypical dynamic from what I experienced in many other courses.

    I’m not sure this example is relevant, but good teachers make the community and maybe the small learning communities needs to rethink some their fundamental beliefs.

  9. just to clarify, the “we” was CSJ – we’re pretty diverse – i was not speaking for both SLCs

  10. flipside – your bootstraps, meritocracy routine is, to be kind, naive – at worst, blind to reality

  11. I join those complimenting the writer, this is better thought out than most work churned out by professional pundits. Diversity issues in groups are one of those self-perpetuating phenomena. You sit with the people you know and who, in general, look like you. The pitchers mound is a good example of the exception we often find in sports. If you go to a more diverse community and look at who is on the basketball court you’ll find players of all colors and sizes. Get into a bigger organized setting like a school (especially a high school where students endure crazy social pressures) and kids begin self-segregating. This column is a great place to start by acknowledging the problem. Perhaps CSJ and CGI need to do an “exchange” program and get to know each other.

  12. The “more predominant representation” descriptor made me pause…and I just chalked it up to the author meaning “disproportionate representation”. Now, it seems there is a difference of opinion if this is even true. Admittedly, I’m assuming that iteachthereforeiam is intimately familiar with the CSJ demographics. I’ll accept that we seem to have a racial disparity in one of our ‘school within a school”. We just don’t know why and if it is a problem. We only have subjective, anecdotal reasons from over the years.

    This is also about just one attribute of diversity, and only a demographic one – something we can measure. So, we can’t measure other diversity – or other factors – so its a little bit ahead of itself. I disagree this column is a good place to start. Maybe we should back hop and start again.

  13. i’ll put it simpler – is there a higher percentage of af-am in csj than in the school? probably – but not by much. and we have noticeably more white students than CGI has of-color students – does that help clarify, frank?

    it’s a complex issue and i have lots to say, BUT 1. i don’t want to give the impression i speak for all of CSJ – we are a team, and 2. i would say more if it were not a student article – i think we should encourage more student voice, and having the usual debates we have here, including critiquing the article too much – might discourage the author and others from trying to express themselves…

  14. @ birchvld, the “exchange” program is a good idea. Perhaps the football team and lacrosse teams should do the same. SLC’s are not the only place where there are diversity issues, to be fair, even though they get the most ink. Is it racial? It is economic? Is it cultural? A mix of all three?

  15. iteachthereforeiam,

    I appreciate your circumstances, but the author is essentially finished his time at MHS and will likely being paying $20,000/yr in the Fall to get his writing critiqued. But, if these are the unwritten rules here, I will abide by them and give him a free pass and wait for something we can discuss seriously,

  16. iteachthereforeiam,

    I just clicked through the link to read the actual quote by James Harris. Now I understand why it is a complex issue for you.

  17. iteachthereforeiam…you may call me naive and blind to reality but my “bootstraps” optimism comes from years of success in the “real world”. One of the things I am most proud of is giving opportunity and encouragement to, white, gay, straight, rich, poor, male, female… You can live in your world of “woe is me” oppression and preach that to your students but while you are doing that others will go out and build something and hopefully build up others. Best of luck to you and those young minds you are molding and preparing for the unforgiving workforce. My reality is much different than yours but it is far from naive.

  18. “My reality is much different than yours but it is far from naive.”

    —if you assume that your “reality” is the same as everyone else’s “reality”, then yes, you are naive…

  19. Acknowledging that some people face greater challenges and have to overcome more to “bootstrap” isn’t living in a “world of ‘woe is me oppression'”. That’s just living in the world.

    We don’t all put on the same boots, face the same climb and the same obstacles. That’s just a simple reality that can’t be washed away by simply denying it exists.

  20. @dblepresso…I am the last person that would deny obstacles exist… it is all about how you let those obstacles effect your life. You can perceive them as grave injustices that you are helpless to overcome or you can accept the challenge and persevere… Willpower! Some people naturally have it and others don’t but it can be cultivated. Excuse my pollyanna naivete but I have seen a lot of people succeed by ignoring the obstacles and unfairness. Energy spent dwelling on obstacles can be used to overcome them. What is lacking is guidance and inspiration.

  21. Mx Rawley has presented a clear and engaging view of the issues represented by the two self perpetuating groups. But, in my era, the 1970s, one group might just decide to sit in, and teach in, sharing knowledge and views with others. In other situations, it was easier to call in the Ohio national guard, or the Orangeburg police and dispense with free speech. Both approaches were used with varying degrees of success.

    Perhaps one MHS group should “call out” the other to discuss / debate a topic of interest to students. Do Montclair police single out African American students for disparate treatment, for example? Make it a school community discussion.

    Or, does the MHS serve the needs of its students? And, what should be the purpose of a thorough and efficient education? There’s no need to wait for an imprimatur from the administration.

    My question of the day is why so few students sign up for advanced placement courses, and even fewer sit for AP exams.

  22. That’s an exceptionally succinct comment. Thank you.

    I’d rather see the students evangelizing their points of view, rather than simply reinforcing their own positions with discussions among like minded folks. If their arguments have merit, they can stand up to challenge and public debate.

    If the deeply head beliefs are nonsense, that will be evident soon enough

  23. I’m not sure if the AVID program still exists, but I distinctly remember the pitch that they gave to families at the high school. It was supposed to be a smaller, more intimate learning community that focused on reading and writing. The teacher giving the presentation said, “CGI is mostly white, CSJ is mostly black. We are 50% white and 50% black.”

    Right, so no Asian/Hispanic kids in the program?

    The way the teacher phrased this kind of shocked me. I think he was trying to be inclusive, but the way he said it sounded so overracialized and petty.

  24. Paolo,

    I like your primary points. The current students should take up a role by leveraging their SLCs to bring about a broader, larger discussion. I agree with the need to challenge the institutionalized thinking and diversifying like-minded participants, especially in a high school environment that, even at MHS, can be insular.

    As an aside, I do think the KSU reference was strained. Regretfully, most people’s current understanding of the Kent State shootings is limited to CSN&Y’s ditty ‘Ohio’. A better understanding of what happened that May came about from the commitment to a full hindsight study.

    This leads me to add on to your suggestion about a more robust dialog and also Mr Rawley’s role. To break the self-perpetuating cycle, it may be beneficial for graduates of these SLC to return in a year or so to lead a forum providing valuable perspectives and hindsights that peers could offer.

  25. @spork

    Oh boy, and I bet the teacher really did feel like they were making a positive point. The road to hell is paved with good intentions…

    Getting around our ingrained stereotypes is a generational process. I remember my grandmother used to say “Jew them down” in reference to bargaining. I didn’t realize how offensive it was until I was an adolescent, it was just something she said. It takes a conscious effort to make progress on these things and we often slip without realizing it.

  26. The teacher giving the presentation said, “CGI is mostly white, CSJ is mostly black. We are 50% white and 50% black.”

    Holy Cow!!! I can’t believe a teacher actually said that??!!! WTH was that teacher trying to communicate??! I mean, really – hey Green people, pick this-or-that, because it’s mostly other Green people?? Are we still on the planet earth? I understand Gretchen’s point, and work with some folks who will tell a nice story such as “I met this really nice {description} person on the airplane and it turned out she’s a professor at MIT” blah blah blah. And the storyteller clearly doesn’t realize, they should just tell the story – we don’t need to know what skin tone/religion/nationality they are! A person’s a person! Gawd!!!

    Spork, did that happen recently??!

    That’s just infuriating!

    My girl didn’t choose either CGI or CSJ, and for some strange reason, many of her peers looked at her askew because of it. I wonder if it was because she wasn’t ‘taking a side’??? (I think her own reasoning had more to do with the dreaded zero period). However, looking at it from the outside, when she was a Freshman making her 10th grade schedule, the division was pretty clear.

    I’m certainly not smart enough to know *why* there’s a division or what can be done about it, but I would have been mortified to have a teacher say that to me. I probably would have doomed my kids to eternal high school purgatory, after being unable to restrain my big mouth. Simply indefensible!

  27. This was a couple years ago. I don’t even know if the program still exists.

    But if you have kids that are still in high school, ask them about “basement classes.”

  28. Kay, if CGI and CSG are mostly stratified by race, why is it indefensible for teacher to note that fact? Might that be useful information to student choosing between two? Is it indefensible to say that Howard comprises mostly black students and Brigham Young mostly white students? Your indignation is what makes race relations so fraught.

  29. donmorgan, I don’t feel like that’s the same scenario at all. Howard and BYU have a mission, as does Smith, Embry-Riddle, DeVry, and RIT’s Institute for the Deaf. People choose colleges based on all sorts of criteria and there are many fine schools out there which meets any number of specific needs.

    I don’t believe the SLCs at the high school are supposed to have a mission to serve only *certain* kids since our schools serve *all* kids. So wouldn’t a teacher that points out such stratification be perpetuating such a divide? If a student is interested in social justice, why should it matter whether CSJ is “primarily black/white/polka dots”? I don’t want a teacher to look at me with a gimlet eye and say what sounds to me like “white kids should stick with CGI”? What is this, West Side Story?

    Sorry if you think I am taking it the ‘wrong’ way but I feel that pointing out the divide only serves to continue it. How can we ever close the gap if that’s the approach? Maybe I am indignant because my children are half Puerto Rican, and we’ve endured our share of frowns and stares as family. And I certainly don’t want them to be pigeonholed into a class, school, job or anything else where “all the Hispanic kids are” simply because of their background.

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