The Montclair Board of Education’s first meeting of 2018 on January 10 featured three presentations, one of which had not been on the original agenda but ended up causing great controversy.
Interim Schools Superintendent Barbara Pinsak joined with Director of Operations and School Support Services Felice Harrison-Crawford in discussing the school suspension rate. The numbers – much of the presentation involved numbers – were sobering; out of over 6,700 students in the district, 179 were suspended for infractions ranging from disobedience to violation of rules, and a disproportionate number of suspended students were male, black, and/or in special education classes.
Superintendent Pinsak tried to stress the positive aspects of the report, saying she was in communications with the school principals to get a handle of the situation, and she noted that suspensions had actually decreased in the first four months of the current school year in comparison to the first four months of 2016-17. She admitted that the district was not where she wanted it to be, but that it was moving in the right direction. She also focused on new initiatives that could help reduce suspensions, such as the expansion of the Academy at Glenfield Middle School and the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program, and she outlined challenges for the district to meet going forward, such as balancing support for staffers and teachers with addressing student needs, continued funding of the Undoing Racism project, and working more closely with parents and families on critical topics.
Board members generally agreed that such initiatives needed to be pursued, but they largely were having none of Superintendent Pinsak’s optimism. Joseph Kavesh said as much, saying the numbers presented were the most depressing set of numbers he’d seen since the audit only a few weeks earlier, and he added that more money was needed for handling suspensions at a time when finding monies for the overall budget was lean. Eve Robinson gave an incendiary appraisal of the situation, noting that 11 boys had been suspended in elementary school. Recalling the earlier success Montclair had had with providing universal pre-kindergarten classes, Robinson said the lack of support for pre-K in recent years was only allowing children to enter school with underdeveloped abilities to control themselves and show empathy or others. Adding that education for children aged four to eight – especially boys in that age range –should be better, she said it was “way late” in trying to deal with students at the middle-school and high-school level.
Board member Franklin Turner minced no words in spelling out the main problem – racism. Turner cited examples in his own experience about black boys he’d taught being subject to discriminatory treatment, and he said that systemic bigotry was at the root of so many black male students not getting the attention and the guidance they need. His comments sparked a long discussion about the effect of racism and how white administrators without any background in the issue should recognize the problem and deal with it. Board member Anne Mernin echoed the concerns that Robinson expressed, saying they had resources, as well as a new deputy superintendent in charge of equity, and that it was imperative to set goals to reduce suspensions and reach them.
Dr. Harrison-Crawford offered insight into two other topics that night. In discussing the enrollment report, which was required by Trenton for the purpose of computing state aid, she said that the district had prepared for more students enrolling in 2017-18 than it had actually received – 323 new enrollees compared to the 420 projected – but it had met its projections based on gender. Dr. Harrison-Crawford said the state had set a baseline for minority and “non-minority (white) students to achieve racial balance in the effort to achieve desegregation. She added that Montclair was striving for a plus or minus variance of 10 percent minority/non-minority for racial balance in each school based on total enrollment, with a similar variation for the kindergarten class. The district hopes to achieve 100 percent compliance with the target of racial balance within the schools, even though it does meet the state mandate under the desegregation plan. The district’s students are 49 percent Hispanic or non-white, with blacks comprising a quarter of the overall student body.
The vandalism and violence report, also presented by Dr. Harrison-Crawford, showed relatively little vandalism in terms of number of incidents. Property damage incidents totaled four for 2016-17, up from only one the previous year, but still much lower than 12 incidents for 2011-12. There was one arson incident in 2016-17, involving a fire set in a girls’ bathroom in one school, as well as two thefts. However, assaults totaled 24 for 2016-17 – down from 28 in 2013-14 but still higher than the sixteen incidents reported in 2014-15. Incidents of harassment, intimidation or bullying (HIB) numbered eighteen in 2016-17, the district’s third straight annual increase. Kavesh envisioned that the harassment reports among female students, spurred by the sexual misconduct scandals of recent months, would likely increase. Mernin said the growing number of HIB incidents presented an opportunity to observe student behavior and environment to see what is causing such misconduct in order to act. Overall acts of violence and vandalism totaled 63 for 2016-20017, with 80 incidents in 2013-14 being the highest recorded number in the past eight years.
In public comment, June Raegner said that each student should be treated as a person rather than as a statistic, and she added that more care should be used in following special-education students’ Individualized Education Program (IEP) documents.