With the difficult budget season behind it, the Montclair Board of Education showed no signs of lightening its agenda in the short term. The board’s four-hour meeting on April 12 was devoted to no fewer than three major presentations, one made by Montclair High School students.
A group of students led off the evening with a study of homework practices that raised questions. The students said homework is viewed as a way of reinforcing class lessons, but their study found that students were given too many take-home assignments in too many of their classes, leading to time-management problems, anxiety and sleep deprivation. The students advocated a professional development day for teachers to help them learn how to assign homework more appropriately and recommended a cap on the amount of homework a student gets. They were also critical of elementary school homework. One student even told the board she tutors a five-year-old child by reading to her and helping her answer questions, while the child in question is at present unable to read.
Board member Joseph Kavesh was surprised to learn that high school students spent time drinking coffee to keep awake to study and do homework assignments, while board member Eve Robinson said she agreed with the students’ findings and suggested that the district’s homework policy ought to be fine-tuned. Interim Superintendent Barbara Pinsak asked if maybe student development sessions should be in order to help students with time management. The students said they could possibly benefit from that but added the main issue was how homework affected their community service and extracurricular academic activities, such as clubs, which they need to get into the colleges of their choice. The board hopes to have a new homework policy in place by September.
Also, Dr. Kendra Johnson, the district’s Assistant Superintendent for Equity, gave a presentation on providing educational equity in the schools, emphasizing the point that equality of access hardly counts as an equal chance of learning. Dr. Johnson showed how minority students and students with disabilities have been given short shrift due to culturally insensitive instruction and a lack of available opportunities for students in those categories. Dr. Johnson’s efforts to rectify systemically inequitable education have been underway since the issue of the June 2015 report from the Achievement Gap Advisory Panel. Dr. Johnson’s office has succeeded in creating curricula to respect and honor cultural sensitivities, increasing Undoing Racism sessions to reduce “micro-aggression,” or forms of unintentional signs of bigotry to minority students, and creating an English as a Second Language (ESL) class for immigrant students and students who are children of immigrants. She acknowledged that more is needed to be done, such as developing an overall equity strategy and establishing consistent criteria for instituting best practices, but she was confident she could continue the progress. Dr. Johnson said children needed to be affirmed, either in the classroom or by being offered more opportunities, such as additional instruction for advanced proficiency classes.
Finally, the Department of Pupil Services (DPS) gave an overview of its special-education program. The DPS took pride in the fine-tuned organization of the program, explaining how every special-education student was assigned a case manager if warranted, helping to build communication between the school and the home. DPS also makes an effort to assist students with special needs by looking at data based on specific issues and addressing students’ individual needs through a collaborative process.
The special education program in the Montclair school district serves 1,225 students, 366 of which are in Montclair High School. Every attempt is made to integrate these students with the general education program, with special classes used only when the nature or severity of the educational disability doesn’t allow a child’s needs to be addressed satisfactorily in regular classes. Nicholas Del Re, an interim supervisor with DPS, was proudest of their efforts to help special-ed graduates integrate into the community by learning daily-life skills, which he said was part of breaking down barriers for young people.
Challenges for special education in Montclair include more space for instruction and adequately scheduling staff, as well as a greater need for professional development in running reading programs and in handling behavioral interventions.
Kavesh told DPS’s Rebecca Ross that the Individualized Education Program process was “adversarial” from the viewpoint of special-ed parents. Ross conceded the point, and she reaffirmed DPS’s commitment to help the students.
Public comment centered on the presentations, with resident Paula White saying her own experience as a teacher underscored the importance of equity. She remembered having difficulty in accommodating a student in a wheelchair for a field trip. On the homework issue Deirdre Birmingham said the grade level made a difference in the appropriateness of homework, and she wanted to see actual data that elementary school homework, for example, helped students manage their time. She said she could find no evidence that K-5 homework was academically beneficial. Sarah Blaine, meanwhile, suggested more special-ed training for general-ed teachers.
Also, Interim Superintendent Pinsak spoke about the field trip policy pertaining to a traditional September science field trip at Renaissance School, saying that the $50 limit on money from parents to the service of field trips makes it impossible for the school’s PTA to raise enough money by September, and she said it illuminated the problem of field-trip equity across the district. With only Renaissance providing such a field trip, there was a question of equity for similar field trips in all of the schools, and as long as parents are asked for money for the trips, it would come up again and again as an issue. School Board President Jessica de Koninck said the board had to figure out how to provide such equity, and she hoped they could make a determination on which trips to prioritize by the next board meeting.