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.
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.
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.
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.