The November 20 meeting of the Montclair Board Of Education wasn’t expected to be long. The biggest issue was the description of the job of student advocate, which was created at the behest of former Interim Superintended Ronald Bolandi.
Then the discussion began.
Interim Superintendent Barbara Pinsak explained for the members of the public that the board was recently given a proposal for a student advocate position. She said she had recommended the district get information and analysis of student performance from grades and report cards, but, having attended district meetings where the position was brought up, she and Kendra Johnson, the district’s Assistant Superintendent for Equity, came up with a way to support the position. Board President Laura Hertzog thought it was necessary to discuss in public. The discussion lasted nearly an hour and dominated the meeting.
Board member Anne Mernin had concerns about the position, saying it allowed too much responsibility for upholding equity on behalf of the Montclair district’s students away from current staffers, when, she said, everyone should be able to ensure equity. The student advocate’s position, created in May 2016, was defined as someone who would be responsible for providing advocacy to students to “ensure that they meet academic and behavior requirements to move to the next grade level.” Dr. Johnson explained the job would also require more interfacing with staffers and parents as well as students to get help for the children and their families.
Board member Joseph Kavesh was for the position, saying it would help black students affected by the achievement gap and go a long way in the district’s Undoing Racism project. But other board members, such as Jevon Caldwell-Gross and Jessica de Koninck, found the description of the job lacking in clarity; Rev. Caldwell-Gross noted the position is implied to foster equity, but the need for promoting equity was not part of the job description.
Board member Dr. Franklin Turner, on the other hand, was visibly frustrated about the fact that a student advocate hadn’t been hired, even though the position had been in place for 18 months. As one of three black board members on the BOE, Dr. Turner noted that the board had the exact same membership when it approved the position in May 2016, and he was frustrated it had not yet been filled despite an ongoing achievement gap between black students and white students, which has been in place for decades. Dr. Turner’s angry tone set off shouts of solidarity from the public.
Some members of the public got their opportunity to express their disgust over the unfilled position in public comments. Resident John Washington said that an advocate for students, who would be independent and would act in the students’ interests, was needed He added that racism remained a problem in public schools and that he had been subject of racial animosity as a teacher in another school district, snubbed by a white principal who never greeted him with a salutation in the morning. Washington declared that if he ran a company with the seven school board members as his board of directors, he’d have fired them.
Board president Hertzog suggested a compromise to move forward with the student advocate position between those who wanted it to go forward immediately and those who wanted to finalize changes in the language of the description at a later meeting. She proposed that they add a resolution to the agenda that approved the position that night but made changes in the wording, which she saw as miniscule, after it was approved. The board agreed and passed a resolution going forward with a student advocate – now to be called a student equity advocate – toward the end of the meeting.
Dr. Johnson also updated the board on the goals set by the district. She said teachers were given training before the start of school and were subject to job-embedded training, and she added that they now have access to Renaissance Learning (RL), a software tool that allows teachers to access real-time information and plan their lessons accordingly. There is now more emphasis on training for teaching science and English Language Arts (ELA), with further teacher training and job-embedded professional development, and dates for the latter strategy are being planned. Dr. Johnson also hopes to have more Undoing Racism workshops for the 2017-18 school year, with 14 such workshops already having been held, and she hopes to continue to look at practices and services in the Students Accelerated In learning (SAIL) program for gifted children. The SAIL program is also slated to have an electronic-needs assessment implemented, involving parents of gifted children and teachers, and she is looking to form a SAIL advisory committee as well.
Also, in public comment, two students requested that the district look into installing filling stations for water bottles to replace water fountains, and student Alexis Dickerson reiterated her interest in seeing Hillside School renamed for former President Barack Obama, as well as having the Montclair High School’s media center renamed for him, to demonstrate Montclair’s progressive values. Her father, Abraham Dickerson, told the board in no uncertain terms that he found the school lunch program to be anything but progressive, insisting that the request for proposal (RFP) with the food vendor is repeatedly violated by the inclusion of soft drinks and textured meat on the menu. Board President Hertzog told Dickerson she could discuss his concerns with him after the meeting.