The Montclair Board of Education went through its normal business at its Janaury 22 meeting, viewing presentations, receiving reports, and tackling issues brought in public comment – including the topic of race.
Dr. Dottie Bennett appeared before the board to discuss the 20th anniversary of the Sister to Sister mentoring program for girls in the Montclair school system. Founded in 1998 by Adele Katz, Sister to Sister helps girls with school and with life choices throughout the K-12 experience and helps they move forward. Dr. Bennett, who recently took over as director, said that numerous lives had been enhanced by the program. Alisa Brown was one of a few students on hand to give a testimonial of the program, saying it helped her figure out what to do in life.
The Sister to Sister program is currently active in Montclair High School, all three of the district’s middle schools, and two of the elementary schools, Nishuane and Bullock. Dr. Bennett said that she hoped to implement the program in the remaining elementary schools. Sister to Sister offers high school girls four college tours a year, two in the fall and two in the spring.
Also, Director of Pupil Services Thomas Santagato presented his proposed action plan to review services for students with disabilities and/or special needs. He called for an analysis of existing programs to see if the district can provide stronger programs and make them more fiscally responsible. Santagato’s main issue was trying to identify students with disabilities or special needs in a timelier manner. The process utilized to identify such students involves intervention and referral services, with referrals from teachers and parents to respond to a student who may need the available programs, and the district has 20 calendar days to meet with someone who the parents or guardians of a student who has been referred.
The district looks at the number of evaluations based on the referrals, and Santagato wants to review that process to see the referrals that come and if they are worthy of evaluation. “We want to make sure we are meeting their needs in the least restrictive environment,” he said, “not necessarily classifying every student that gets referred, but really, looking at the evaluation process for what’s intended to be, and that’s to find a student with a disability.” Santagato also wants to take a look at independent evaluations and see why the feel the need to come with one and also see if the evaluations will reflect if the children served have a disability.
Santagato also said he would like to look at the possibility of being able to include a program to meet children who might be placed out of the district and also look at the costs involved to keep the program fiscally responsible. He also hopes to improve professional development in identifying children with disabilities and utilize members of the Montclair Education Association (MEA) to collect data, who will receive a district rate of $49 per hour as part of an agreement with the union. The review will be ongoing and shared with the school board this June and September, as well as in January 2019. In public comment, resident Mark LaRocca thanked Santagato for his presentation but lamented that there was no place listed where feedback from parents could be collected. LaRocca said he hoped to find a way to help get feedback and get the comments of affected parents in to the conversation, which Board President Laura Hertzog said would be “very helpful.”
Also in public comment, Montclair NAACP President James Harris advised the board to take steps to reduce the disproportionate number of black students, particularly black boys, in special education. Harris said black male students are by nature restless and full of energy, as opposed to more reserved nature of white female students, and he found it unfair to evaluate black boys by the same standard of students who are the opposite in terms of race and sex. Citing the cultural differences that separate black boys, Harris said he wanted to know more about the psychologists and social workers performing the evaluations.
“I suspect that there’s good intentions, but the results have not been impressive in terms of reducing the disproportionality,” he said. “I think we’ve got a cultural issue. Any teacher who thinks that [black] males are gonna behave like little white girls has got it twisted, it’s not gonna happen . . .. In the [black population] – ask any parent – the boys have a lot of energy. So if the teacher is thinking that the ideal student is going to sit there, be compliant, and just [be] nice and easy and not get restless – unless they have a particular sensitivity to culture, parents, there’s gonna be the attitude of a disruptive child.” He noted black parents who said that anything getting in the way of their children’s progress should be removed, and he said there was an unfair, disproportionate number of referrals to a white-dominated child study team that needed more diversity.
MEA President Petal Robertson was more frank, saying the conversation about race and equity persisted after decades and said the board had the opportunity to act on racial equity and take personal responsibility. She lamented the cuts of after-school services and programs and reducing minority representation among the staff, and Glenfield teacher Margaret Whitsett, said that decisions made that affect minority students emanate from the top and have to be examined more closely. “Institutional racism is about power, she said. “Power is not held at the middle but from the top.” She reminded Interim Schools Superintendent Barbara Pinsak that she herself had said equity is about finding the right people for the right positions. Robertson had cited an example that was a reflection of the NAACP’s Harris’s own race/sex dynamic observation – in Robertson’s case, the example of the absence of black female counselors and only white male counselors who cannot relate to students who are their racial and gender opposites.
The board also voted to approve all but one of the 15 policy proposals up for first reading. The proposed student tracking device policy reads that tracing devices are allowed so long as they cannot transmit audio and video, but many parents have tracking devices on their children’s smartphones, which makes the language of the proposed policy inconsistent. The proposed policy was withdrawn, and Board President Hertzog told Baristanet that Superintendent Pinsak would review it before it came up for a vote.
Board President Hertzog also reported to the public the board spent the previous weekend interviewing applicants for the superintendent position and hope to winnow the field in subsequent interviews in the last weekend of January, with the final candidates presented to the public for feedback in February.