Montclair’s Board of Education meeting was awash in a sea of blue Monday night as teachers and other staff wearing Montclair Education Association (MEA) shirts came out in force to let the board know, during public comment, that they are watching and listening.
The meeting began with interim superintendent Barbara Pinsak congratulating Montclair High School’s Center for Social Justice coordinator Jeff Freeman, as well as students Aja Bussey and Alexis Dickerson, for being honored at the Montclair NAACP Thurgood Marshall dinner.
Weston Science Scholars
The next presentation came from students who participated in Weston Science scholars program, a five-week summer program at Montclair State University. One group of students gave a presentation on the Michelson Interferometer, explaining constructive vs. destructive interference, past applications and their hypothesis and experiments (finding the wavelength of two lasers and measuring the index of refraction of air. A second group discussed RF Smog, the frequencies used for telecommunications, and a project to discern any possible health risks related to RF Smog.
Montclair Fund For Education Excellence
MFEE executive director Masiel Rodriguez explained to the board how it awards funds through three types of grants — educational excellence grants (funds to try something innovative in classroom); professional development grants; and grants for programs to develop and enhance students social and emotional skills. MFEE typically receives about 200 proposals from staff and distributes between $85-90,000 through the three different grant tracts. MFEE communications director Georgette Gilmore shared news about MFEE’s Junior Board, comprises of four students from each grade level in Montclair High School. The students will be given $2500 to allocate to an area or program of their choosing to enhance their school. MFEE will also present “Life After High School,” a mini-conference for students and parents on December 2, from 9 a.m.-noon at Montclair State University.
Pinsak then gave the annual mandated PARCC report and NJASK overview, reiterating that it was a mandated presentation. Pinsak stated that there were only five states still administering the PARCC — Colorado, New Jersey, New Mexico, Maryland, Rhode Island — for k-8 and high school students. Pinsak said Montclair schools had increased its participation rate with some exceptions. The lowest participation rate was in the high school, which Pinsak said was true of other districts because of SATS, AP tests and other assessments students were focusing on instead. She also spoke about district instructional initiatives, which include algebra for all students by the end of grade 8.
Board member Eve Robinson responded to the PARCC report. “This data doesn’t do much for us here in Montclair. We have strong beliefs in this town that this particular assessment tool was not a valuable use of our students’ time. It’s my hope that the state will start to reconsider and we won’t be stuck in this mire,” said Robinson, to loud applause and cheers from the audience. “I would love our district to be looking at and examining more authentic ways to assess student learning so we have real facts and figures.”
BOE President Laura Hertzog gave an update on the search for a permanent superintendent. Herzog said that the search firm, Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, report that they have additional candidates applying since the last update and are in the process of conducting initial screening interviews to make recommendations to the board, who will then conduct their own interviews. The firm expects to interview five candidates in early November. They will also give another presentation to the board on their progress on November 1st.
The public comment started off with student Nafia Hampton giving a spirited dance performance to “Freedom” by Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar. Senior Noah Gale echoed Ms. Robinson’s rebuke of PARCC, calling the test “such a waste of time.”
Nafia’s mother then took to the podium, saying that her daughter was denied participation in musicals and had been placed in an introductory dance class in high school. Hampton called for a reform of the audition and selection process for performing arts classes in the district and stated that the current performing arts classes and shows do not accurately reflect the diversity of the community.
Anne Baney, introducing herself as both a parent of students in district and a teacher, asked why the district had changed its maternity leave policy, requiring teachers to return back to work after six months. [Pinsak later addressed the issue, saying there was not a change to the policy per se, but that the district was now enforcing the maternity policy it had always had, which may have not been the case before.]
Maia Davis asked for more clarity and transparency about changes to the language arts curriculum/literature instruction. “Every child deserves an education rich in literature and here in Montclair, a town filled with authors, writers and editors of every kind, cutting back on teaching literature should be unthinkable,” said Davis.
Tom Manos, MEA vice president, wanted to know what happened to the student advocate position that has yet to be filled and asked for better communication and true collaboration, including having the BOE restore the MEA and PTA to the board’s agenda. “Our removal from the agenda was an effort to silence us and that still resonates,” said Manos. “The thee minute time-limit did not silence the MEA, nor did it speed up board meetings, quiet the contrary. And it’s a constant reminder of the fracture of our relationship.”
MEA president Petal Robertson then explained why the audience was packed with the sea of blue MEA shirts. “Today, we are just here to remind you that we are here. We are here and going to ask you the hard questions and have the uncomfortable conversations. We are here when you have special education students who are not receiving the proper services due to staffing issues, when we warned you about that last year. We are here when expectant mothers are denied extended childrearing leave. We are here when classes that have 33 students really only fit 25. We are here when counselors of color are laid off, leaving so many children without representation. We are here when what’s articulated to the board or the public doesn’t match what we know is occurring. We are here when it’s time to pick up the pieces and fix what’s broken long after those who made the decisions that broke them, are gone.”
Robertson then asked the board for a seat at the table. “That’s why we’re here and we will be here. Without the right information, you stand to make the wrong budget decisions and even more scary, the wrong choice of superintendent. And we all know what it looks like when you make the wrong choice of superintendent,” said Robertson, to loud cheering and applause.