Barbara Pinsak, the outgoing interim superintendent of the Montclair school district, was praised by members of the Montclair Board of Education at her last meeting with them, the board’s April 16 meeting. Board President Laura Hertzog lauded her as a woman of kindness, grace and wisdom who, ironically, filled numerous positions that had been held by interim appointees, and she presented her with two special gifts – a pot of flowers and a year-long sponsorship of a child through Save the Children.
Superintendent Pinsak was also lauded by Montclair parents in public comment, but a Teaneck man who came to the podium made allegations that Pinsak had harmed his son, who he says is multiply disabled and indigent. Teaneck resident Hector Ferrer lashed out at Superintendent Pinsak in public comment and blamed her for his son’s mistreatment when he was in that district at the time she was its superintendent. He gave no specifics but instead attempted to link her to “waste, fraud and abuse” in Teaneck and, without explanation, had apparently on an earlier occasion sought to connect her to the George Washington Bridge closure scandal of 2013. Ferrer said Superintendent Pinsak was the defendant in lawsuits before the state Supreme Court and in a federal case.
When Ferrer attempted to serve Pinsak with an affidavit, Board President Hertzog fired back, telling Ferrer to stop accusing Superintendent Pinsak of any charges in a public forum. Hertzog also told Pinsak that she didn’t have to respond to Ferrer’s comments, but Pinsak chose to respond nonetheless. She stated she was no different in Montclair than she had been at Teaneck, saying she had always looked after the best interests of children and dismissing Ferrer’s comments as a “frivolous judgment.” She denied any connection to the lawsuit brought against the Teaneck school district and added, “I was not involved in Bridgegate.”
Superintendent Pinsak is remaining involved as a consultant through October to help in the transition to Superintendent-designate Kendra Johnson. Speaking of whom, board member Anne Mernin wanted to answer questions of her absence concerning the vote in the previous week’s meeting to approve Superintendent-designate Johnson’s hiring. Mernin stated she had a business meeting scheduled for April 11 long before the special meeting was called, and she had to honor her earlier commitment. Board member Jessica de Koninck did not address the controversy, and board member Eve Robinson was absent.
In her current role as assistant superintendent for equity, Superintendent-designate Johnson laid out a board plan to improve student performance in three tiers of difficulty – Tier I core instruction for all students, Tier II targeted instruction to address specific skill development, and Tier III instruction for skill development that takes longer for students who need more time. Dr. Johnson’s findings that core instruction, small group instruction, and involvement in improving literacy through the Leveled Literacy Intervention (LLI) program were strong but specific specialized programs and devotion of time to Tier II and Tier III cases were varied and administered inconsistently. Dr. Johnson, whose promotion to superintendent takes place May 1, receommedned integrating a second-tier universal screener for reading between kindergarten and third grade, make specialized programs available at all schools, and train all elementary-school curriculum and support teachers in the Lindamood Bell reading program to help them get all students up to speed. LLI training would be given to any teachers that have not yet received certification in LLI.
Dr. Johnson also provided updates on the Undo Racism project, passionately championed by Dr. Ronald Bolandi when he was Montclair’s interim superintendent. With 11 workshops held over the previous two school years and five more to date, she informed the board that two more are planned for this spring, and an intense one-day Implicit Bias Workshop is slated for June 22. She reported that 289 staffers are still in need of the training, 137 of whom are teachers.
De Koninck asked how incoming kindergarteners and first-graders would be assessed for need of greater instruction. Dr. Johnson said initial screenings of kindergarteners would not take place until three months into their time in kindergarten, so teachers can look and see what and where students’ needs are, and plan additional instruction accordingly, when needed for a specific skill. When board member Rev. Jevon Caldwell-Gross asked about the consequences of assessments for students, Dr. Johnson said the assessments would be viewed as “learning tools” to identify necessary areas for extra instruction, with communication to parents to offer guidance and ease concerns of parents who worry about possible Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for their children. The information gathered on students would be used to better help the teachers but would avoid passing judgment on students.
Also, district parents Joel Patenaude and Judy Hoffstein announced a new project in honor of their adopted son Alex, who died in August 2017. Alex Patenaude was known for his kindness and compassion to fellow Montclair High School students, befriending lonely classmates and teaching people how to be kind and respectful to others. His parents said the Alex Patenaude Compassion Project would help school children develop positive behavioral support and social-emotional leaning to help children develop their emotional maturity and their ability to show empathy for others. An award in Alex’s name is to be bestowed to students who make strides in emotional development. The project is spearheaded by and was created with support from Dr. Imad Zaheer of Montclair State University.
Also, in public comment, Abraham Dickerson reiterated his call for healthier food in the school lunch program. Dickerson suggested the current food vendor was violating district policy against unhealthy foods in the program and wondered if a lawsuit against the vendor were possible. He also said students needed healthy food and that if the food were better, teachers could eat in the cafeteria with their students and connect with them through the communal benefits of sharing a meal.
“Food is a community,” Dickerson said. He added that the proof that the food in the lunch program “sucks” is that “you guys won’t eat it.”