Montclair BoE: Magnet and SLC Classes, Minority Participation in AP Courses, Fortunato Field

The Montclair Board of Education discussed advanced proficiency (AP) courses and magnet schools – specifically, how to improve both – at its June 18 meeting. Superintendent Kendra Johnson made the presentations herself before the board.

The Montclair Board of Education

Superintendent Johnson’s AP report focused on the low number of black and Hispanic students taking part in the AP courses versus non-Hispanic white and Asian participation and found the percentages to be going in the wrong direction.  According to the study, black and Hispanic students have averaged a 37.7 percent completion rate over the past three school years, but, when broken down, the figures are disappointing.  Participation rates among black and Hispanic students in English and Language Arts, Math, Social Studies, and Visual and Performing Arts have fallen sharply.  Their presence in high-honors courses is also wanting, having dropped from 26 percent in 2016-17 to 22 percent in 2017-18.  They have remained relatively strong, though, in AP science courses, maintaining a steady average 15 percent participation rate over the past three school years (though Superintendent Johnson says it could be better) and improving dramatically in world languages (34 percent participation in 2017-18 over 28 percent in 2016-17).

Superintendent Johnson said the district needs to communicate better with black and Hispanic students to get them to participate and empower guidance counselors to encourage them to take AP classes.  She said a support system for both non-Asian minority students and for AP teachers, plus more outreach to parents, would go a long way toward bringing equity to the AP program.  She added students ought to receive encouragement for AP courses as early as elementary school.

Board member Eve Robinson appreciated Superintendent Johnson’s efforts to expand the AP pool, but she added that Montclair has different types of students and that the district should be helping students thrive in different ways of learning.  She also suggested that the district look at similarly integrated school districts for guidance on how to proceed.  She said South Orange / Maplewood district would provide the best model locally, as Essex County is highly segregated, the eastern districts dominated by blacks and Hispanics and the western districts dominated by non-Hispanic whites and Asians.

Board member Anne Mernin asked Superintendent Johnson for the cause of the downward trend among non-Asian minorities in AP courses, and the superintendent theorized there may be intense competition from other electives, and that some black and Hispanic students may make a conscious decision not to participate in AP courses.  Board member Franklin Turner wondered if maybe the drop was due to black parents sending their children to private schools; Superintendent Johnson said she would look at the available data to determine if that is a cause.

Superintendent Johnson also took a look at magnet programs and Small Learning Communities (SLCs) in the district in a separate study to see how they could be improved.  Among her findings were some positive trends.  The science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) magnet program at Buzz Aldrin Middle School is robust, with solid courses and after-school programs, and the Montessori theme at Edgemont School is well-reinforced.  She also praised the diligence of Bullock School’s environmental science magnet program, and she noted the rigors of the STEM, Civics and Government Institute, and Center for Social Justice SLCs at Montclair High School.

However, she did find room for improvement.  Johnson found the Bradford School’s university magnet program in need of enhancement, and noted that Bradford, Bullock and Renaissance currently have no magnet teachers.  She proposed that the magnet themes be strengthened by a comprehensive review of the schools’ separate programs; ensure a “rigorous, innovative and relevant curriculum” at each magnet and SLC class in each school; develop thoughtful partnerships with the community; and seek additional grant opportunities for the programs, among other suggestions.  She hoped to reach out to teachers directly and get support from the principals to pursue these objectives.

The board also discussed resurfacing Fortunato Field.  Business Administrator Emidio D’Andrea went over with the board several options for what sort of field surface to use with the board, and said the board could weigh the options based on cost effectiveness versus the desire for an environmentally-friendly product.  Board President Laura Hertzog said more information was needed, not just for the effectiveness of the turf but how well athletes could withstand injury playing on it.  Turner said plain grass may be an option – athletes are known to prefer natural turf – and Building and Grounds Director John Eschmann said he would do a cost analysis.  D’Andrea said one option for the timeline for restoring Fortunato Field was for one beginning work in October or November, though that period may be too close to winter and the impossibility of any work being done on the field in temperatures below 35 degrees Fahrenheit; an alternative was to start work in early spring.  D’Andrea said unpredictable weather and unexpected problems did not allow for a clear choice between the two. The board is expected to gather more information before going forward.

Montclair High School students Jimmy Connors (left) and John Waitz give public comment on later start times for high school students,

In public comment, Montclair High students Jimmy Connors and John Waitz asked the board to consider later start times for high school students to allow them to get more sleep. They argued that depriving teenagers of even 20 minutes of sleep can lead to loss of concentration and substandard performance in class, and they added that the district would have minimal trouble adjusting the schedules.  They added that Montclair High principal James Earle has voiced support for the move.  Principal Earle is leaving Montclair to become assistant superintend of West Windsor-Plainsboro school district, and he received a plaque from Superintendent Johnson and Board President Hertzog for his service.

Montclair Board of Education President Laura Hertzog thanks outgoing Montclair High School Principal James Earle as Superintendent Kendra Johnson looks on.

Board President Hertzog also said Woodman Field had been considered for the high school graduation ceremony, but she said there would be too much wear and tear on the field, as well as difficulties for small children and the elderly and no possible shelter in the event of a sudden thunderstorm. The high school graduation ceremony, which takes place on June 21, will be held at the high school amphitheater with bleachers along Park Street for overflow crowds.  She also said that the library would begin serving free lunches for the summer beginning June 25, with help from the community.

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  1. If the AP pool is not expanding, minority representation is sharply declining, and assuming white students are staying relatively constant, then I would conclude the AP pool is actually declining. Which means the BoE needs to also look at class sizes and whether they are declining and if so, what they are doing about costs. If the trend is there, then they need to make the adjustments before the start of the 2018-19 school year.

  2. First, it’s noteworthy that the report on AP etc. was a report intended to get more kids into more rigorous classes. That’s a nice break from the complaints about classes that are “developmentally inappropriate” (which is often code for “too hard” which is often really code for “I cannot understand or do my child’s homework”), excessive homework, testing being too tough, etc. One data point isn’t even a line, but I hope we’ll see more of a trend towards discussing improving academics – and student involvement in academics – at these meetings.

    I didn’t get from the report that the pool of students is shrinking, but that the percentages of participation by race are shifting. Even these seem a little “noisy” to me. I suspect that a three-year-wide view just isn’t enough to show real trends. Black/Hispanic participation in Math H classes dropped over the last three years, but climbed for Science H classes. There was a huge dip in Black/Hispanic participation in Visual & Performing Arts HH classes in one year, but the years before and after were higher.

    This isn’t the only problem with the data. The charts show “completion”. How many students started but dropped from these classes? It would also be very useful to know what percentage actually took the AP exam associated with the class. It was mentioned that many don’t, and this seems very strange to me. Why skip the exam? It cannot hurt, and it might help (esp. for non-seniors, admittedly).

    Since the steps proposed include some to bring more students into the classes and some to help students successfully complete the classes, distinguishing between rates of starting and rates of completion will be needed to judge the effectiveness of these steps. They may also show that we need to put greater emphasis in one or the other.

    It would also be interesting to compare the histories of the students choosing to, and choosing not to, take AP classes. For example, does passage through the SteM magnet Buzz Aldrin make students more likely to take Science or Math APs? Does passage through Arts magnet Glenfield make students more likely to take Art APs?

    BTW: This isn’t the first time the district has looked at this issue. For example, from a couple of years ago:

    Some of this is out of date, of course. For example, the entire HH designation is being dropped while H classes are being made more rigorous.

    I mentioned that a three-year horizon is probably too small a scope to see trends. While on the subject, I want to remind everyone that we must always push the district to provide as much information as possible. Towards the end of the Alvarez administration, we all believed from achievement reports ( that the AGAP was shrinking. This was because the data presented was cherry-picked, either accidentally or deliberately. The first report from the MacCormack administration showed _all_ the data, which was sobering. In any given year some areas of shrinking AGAP could be found (ie. LA3 from 2010-11), but that was not the general trend.

    Finally, with respect to Principal (and shortly Assistant Superintendent) Earle: we’d Barry Haines as a Director of Technology for a couple of years, and then his previous district stole him back. Let’s keep that in mind as we wave our goodbyes to Mr. Earle.


  3. I also think the underlying data is suspect and thin. Way too suspect and thin to justify conclusions at this point that communications/outreach and empowerment/support should be the focus areas.

    Clearly the Non-Hispanic White & Asian students are the overwhelming statistical majority of the AP pool. Based on this article, no findings were shared about how this group varied by the measures cited above (e.g. by building, by subject, by grade, or “electives competition”). Are there no statistical deviations in this group?

    Bottom line is if there is a “sharp decline” on a macro level – even on the minority component, there is likely greater deviations at the school, grade, subject level. Since this is not a quick fix (e.g. strengthening pathways starting at the elementary grade levels), it is almost certain we do not have optimal allocation of our biggest expense – teacher salaries. Hence, wasted precious financial resources.

    With our ongoing budget woes – and the BoE “commitment” to expand their fiduciary role throughout the year – I can’t believe finances are not part of every major issue’s conversation. Not a word here.
    And we want to add Pre-K? We’re not ready. Our district culture is unchanged… add/change and worry about the financial impact after the fact.

  4. “Business Administrator Emidio D’Andrea went over with the board several options for what sort of field surface to use with the board, and said the board could weigh the options based on cost effectiveness versus the desire for an environmentally-friendly product.”

    The useful life & warranty for synthetic fields is 10 years. Montclair bonds the funding for Fortunato Field and similar fields over a 15 year span. I hope this is factored into the cost-analysis.

  5. Glad to see former Montclair resident and current Board member Franklin Turner still part of conversation.

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