The Montclair Board of Education touched on numerous topics at its May 16 meeting, the achievement gap being foremost in its agenda.
Superintendent Kendra Johnson led a discussion on a resolution that board member Anne Mernin had helped craft, which would clearly explain a plan going forward to reduce the gap between white and minority students. The goal is to create a “shared language” between Superintendent Johnson and the board members to convey what is to be done going forward, explain what a classroom with the achievement gap eliminated should look like, and offer clearly delineated metrics to see if the gap is being closed in the plan that the district pursues.
Board member Eve Robinson suggested language referring to a result of a 2015 study on the achievement gap to stress that the district is aware of the gap and has taken steps in the past to correct it, demonstrating an ongoing effort to deal with the situation. She also said the language should reflect various efforts and closing the racial, ethnic and economic divide over the past few decades, and Board President Laura Hertzog – just elected to a second term in her current office – said that baseline data points to monitor progress should be included. Otherwise, Mernin was confident with the wording of the resolution, having had what she called a great talk with Superintendent Johnson on the matter.
In her first superintendent’s report at a regular, as opposed to a workshop, school board meeting, Superintendent Johnson addressed the canceled assembly at Montclair High School scheduled for May 8 that would have included an appearance from Montclair resident Mikie Sherrill, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in New Jersey’s Eleventh House District. She said she was informed of the assembly two days earlier and contacted Principal James Earle and the board’s attorney on the matter, choosing to cancel the event per state law and board policy prohibiting events that favor or promote a candidacy for public office on the board attorney’s advice. Board member Joseph Kavesh was quick to point out that Superintendent Johnson received an e-mail complaining about the assembly after she had already canceled it, the inference being that she did not bow to partisan political pressure.
Robinson offered the only committee report, from the School Culture and Climate Committee (SCCC). A subcommittee of the SCCC looked at student, discipline district-to-student and district-to-family and communications, and the need to create a nurturing environment for the students. The committee looked at various programs and decided to turn over decision-making about how to implement these programs to Superintendent Johnson for her to decide, with two schools, Bradford and Nishuane, chosen for pilot programs. She said that Superintendent Johnson will start to look at the programs and is eager to see what direction she will take.
In public comment, Paula White said she was impressed with school board efforts to address the achievement gap, and she added she was sorry that the district couldn’t get baseline data from the current school year. One of Montclair’s teachers, however, brought up a more personal issue. Donna Zdanowicz, a teacher of language arts at Renaissance, said she took an extended leave during the 2016-17 school year to raise her newborn son, and she planned to take a second extended leave when her second son was born in January 2018, but the extended-leave policy had changed and that she would not be allowed the second leave and forced to resign if she wanted to stay home to raise her second son. She said the staff was never notified of the policy change and added that she expected better from a progressive district like Montclair. Zdanowicz declared she was prepared to resign if she has to because her family comes first.
Also, Watchung School teacher Birdean Clinton received a special honor from Watchung principal Anthony Grosso for saving a first-grader from choking in the cafeteria by performing the Heimlich maneuver on him. She said she was still shaking from the experience, but was glad to have been there at the right moment to save Evan, the first grade boy, who later joined Clinton at the podium. Watchung students also opened the meeting, as the choral group form that school serenaded the audience with renditions of Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me” and “(They Say the Neon Lights Are Bright) On Broadway,” recorded by the Drifters and by George Benson.
The Governor’s Educator of the Year award recipients from Montclair were also announced. They are: Laurie Durber, Bradford; Jennifer Woschinko, Bullock; Smita Dharsi, Edgemont; Bonnie Schotzman, Hillside; Tara Wentzell, Nishaune; Cheryl Starr, Northeast; Marissa Donovan, Watchung; Tracey Belsky and Lora Orta, Buzz Aldrin; Elizabeth Mealey Flack, Glenfield; Mark Stulbaum, Renaissance; and, Jacqueline Lubitz, Montclair High School. Nurse Christine Langton of Bullock, Learning Disabilities Teacher Consultant Maureen O’Connell of Nishuane, school psychologist Janet Leon of Renaissance and guidance counselor Tracie Morrison of Montclair High also received honors.
Also, board member Franklin Turner made a statement regarding an inquiry from a Montclair Times reporter asking whether he currently lives in Montclair. Turner says that he does, in fact, live in town (If Turner did not live in Montclair, he could not serve on the school board). Turner said he asked if he provided his address, would the Montclair Times not run a story about his address. When the reporter could not guarantee this, Turner said he refused to discuss it further.
In public comment, MEA president Petal Robertson acknowledged Turner’s right to not disclose his address, but added that the same right was not afforded to students, and in her experience, predominantly students of color, who have historically have had their Montclair residency questioned and have had to prove residency in order to attend Montclair schools. Robertson said she never approved of the practice and yet it continues.