And then there were three. The Montclair Board of Education vetted its three remaining candidates for the job of schools superintendent at a public meeting on February 26 at the Montclair High School auditorium, each candidate taking turns. As board members and residents listened, Business Administrator Emidio D’Andrea asked the candidates questions about what they would do regarding curriculum, management, the achievement gap, special education, the operational budget, the district’s magnet-school system; how they would promote the district’s values and priorities, what their vision for the district was; and how they would handle infrastructural improvements.
Rachel Goldberg, the only candidate without a doctorate, went first. A former public relations professional, Goldberg got into education by volunteering in an after-school program in the Bronx to help children and pursued an educational career full time once she got a substitute-teaching certificate. A 2007 graduate of Harvard with a master’s degree in education, Goldberg taught high-school English in Elizabeth and was that district’s staff-development director before becoming Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction for the Passaic school district in 2014, where she has been since.
Goldberg stressed the importance of curricula that prioritizes subjects that will help children think critically and will inspire them to ask questions and think critically. She said that, as Montclair superintendents, she would work regularly with the teaching staff and utilize their voices and concerns to develop programs that would encourage children toward success. Goldberg saw special education as an opportunity to focus on programs to address specific goals for each student and provide better access for all special-ed students, and she applied the same philosophy to the magnet school system, advocating a more personalized magnet program that gives children choices in subjects with an equity-based set of expectations for all. Goldberg she said the achievement gap was grounded in lowered expectations for poorer and minority students, a baseline she rejected. Her insistence that support for underprivileged children and encouragement in the classroom would reduce the achievement gap received enthusiastic applause.
Goldberg said she was prepared to make the tough spending choices in annual budget capped at 2 percent growth by the state, with an emphasis on support for critical components in the curricula, and she noted the opportunities to apply for grants to add to the budget; she cited a grant director she has worked with in Passaic who has done an excellent job in providing that district with more resources. She defined her vision for the district as a district that respected the community’s value of diversity and openness, promising to listen to students, teachers and parents, and she envisions a district spirit that would continued to work toward ensuring – and ultimately ensure – opportunity for every Montclair student.
Next up was Dr. Kendra Johnson, whose current position as Montclair’s assistant superintendent for equity, curriculum and instruction, a position she has held since 2016, arguably gave her a home-court advantage. A graduate of historically black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a master’s degree in administration and supervision from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Dr. Johnson said she was drawn to teaching and explained she was motivated by social justice and the legacy of Rosa Parks to fight for equity for black students. Much of her education experience has been in Baltimore County, Maryland (not to be confused with the city of Baltimore, a different jurisdiction).
Dr. Johnson acknowledged the appearance of a strong college-preparation component in district curricula but argued for a more “holistic” approach by including arts, music and language. She cited her success as a school principal in Baltimore County by improving scores of black students by 30 percent, special-education students by 36 percent, and students on reduced-meal programs by 26 percent as example of her ability to narrow the achievement gap, and she pushed for a greater reliance on hard data to single room where room for improvement is needed. Dr. Johnson also said special-ed students could thrive in general-education environments by giving teachers a “robust tool kit” with which to teach.
Much of Dr. Johnson’s approach to budget involved auditing and finding supplementary sources to add to school funding, such as grants, and she talked about looking at where the magnet program needs to be enhanced and prioritizing those needs. She also stressed the need to continue investing in the infrastructure of older school buildings to keep them up to date as well as safe. She defined her vision for the school district as one where the racial and ethnic diversity of advance-proficiency classes mirrored the township’s demographics, and she said there was strength of the diverse and differing opinions based on the commonality of doing what was right by all children in the schools.
Dr. Ross Kasun was last, trumpeting his success as the superintendent of the Freehold school system since 2011. The Freehold district has seen continuous improvement during Dr. Kasun’s term as superintendent, and he was named Superintendent of the Year by the New Jersey Association of School Administrators (NJASA) in 2017. He has been an elementary school teacher and a principal in addition to assistant superintendent in Summit and, from 2008 to 2011, the superintendent of Colts Neck. A holder of a business degree and an education doctorate from Seton Hall University and a onetime senior sales representative at MCI, Dr. Kasun stressed curricular goals that focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, programs as a foundation, twice referring to them as STEAM programs. Like Ms. Goldberg and Dr. Johnson, Dr. Kasun stressed listening to people’s concerns and developing positive relationships as a matter of importance, as well as attending “PTO” meetings.
Dr, Kasun talked about finding creative ways to encourage teachers to help struggling students to narrow the achievement gap, and he advocated “creative scheduling” in special education by having aides handle three students each and instilling in special-ed students a sense of independence so they can learn and think independently when the aide isn’t there. Money saved from such scheduling, he said, can be put back in to educating the students. He talked about partnerships he achieved with private firms to improve education in Freehold, and improving contracts with vendors and even renting out school space to bring more money into the classroom. He also said he would give more support for principals and administration to strengthen the magnet program.
Dr. Kasun said his vision for Montclair was to create an environment where students can take charge of their own learning and sharpen their critical thinking and where learning can be exciting. Dr. Kasun said he was excited just by meeting the teachers, and he said he wanted to be part of the extraordinary opportunity in Montclair. He said he’d like to win the Superintendent of the Year award for the NJASA again – not for himself, but for the district, because being an excellent superintendent is about getting everyone to work together and all be a part of achieving great results.
Board of Education President Laura Hertzog had questions and comments for the three candidates collected from residents in attendance. The board will review the feedback as it prepares to decide on a new superintendent. Interim superintendents have been in charge in Montclair longer than Penny MacCormack, the superintendent who stepped down in April 2015 after a quarter of a decade, had served.