The Montclair Board of Education, appropriately enough, had a full plate for its last meeting of the 2018-19 school year before Thanksgiving. The November 19 meeting included presentations from two schools, fallout from student equity advocate Joseph Graham’s November 7 report to the school board, and standards for participation in varsity athletics.
On the latter issue, board member Priscilla Church reported to the rest of the board that changes to the athletic policy were under consideration. The board was deadlocked over the issue of how many unexcused absences should be allowed before a student is no longer eligible to participate in sports programs and whether the maximum number of allowed absences should be in the marking period, the semester, or the entire school year, and Board President Laura Hertzog encouraged her fellow board members to continue the debate in future meetings. They also addressed the issue of home-schooled students within the district taking part in organized sports. Such students currenly are not allowed to do so.
Board member Eve Robinson noted that the number of home-schooled students in the Montclair district is small in comparison to others. She said that, given that fact, she didn’t think a rule change to benefit home-schooled students was such a bad idea. Board member explained why she thought it would be a bad idea, noting that home-schooled students are not educated to state standards, there are no standards of conduct for home-schooled students, and it would be impossible to apply the same standards district students must follow to home-schooled students. She likened it to loosening standards to allow unvaccinated children to attend school in a measles outbreak, like the ones that have affected Ocean County and also Rockland County in upstate New York. Board member Latifah Jannah accentuated that point, noting that district students must follow rules and regulations, especially those set by the state, while homes-schooled students follow no such directives.
Robinson preferred to keep an open mind on the issue, expressing a desire to see more information on the number of home-schooled children in the district so the board could make a determination. Further information is expected by the board‘s December 5 workshop meeting.
Student equity advocate Joseph Graham’s findings about the student body, explained by Graham himself at the previous BOE meeting, concerned Montclair Education Association (MEA) President Petal Robertson and other MEA leaders. Robertson spoke in public comment, saying that Graham did not communicate with her over the issues of abuse and harassment he found – which amounted to 150 specific allegations. Robertson said she trusted that the board had substantiated the claims brought forward. She feared that there was evidence of criminal activity, which she demanded to know, and that there had to be an investigation of and accountability for any such activity involved. Robertson also said she hoped the parents of students involved were identified.
MEA Vice President Tom Manos noted that Graham had collected data on a weekly basis, and he wanted to know when the information collected on those 150 cases would be made available. He also wanted to know how meetings with students were conducted and which community organizations he worked with. Remembering that Graham had promised to tell the board what systems and structure should be implemented to promote student equity, Manos wanted to know when a report on that goal would be available as well.
Superintendent Kendra Johnson sought to provide some answers to MEA concerns. She said the district would absolutely” come forward in December and share any information with the MEA that it can. She added that Graham got information from students and parents, and that information was turned over to an administrator or a supervisor for investigation.
“The student equity advocate is not interviewing staff members,” Johnson said. “That’s not the student equity advocate’s role. We have individuals who are within the districtwho are trained to do that.” She added that union representation is available for staffers who are questioned in cases regarding possible disciplinary action, even if the MEA leadership is unaware of that. She said she hopes to respond to any questions or concerns that arise, and she hoped her explanation would provide clarity and honesty to the issues. She promised further conversations on the student equity cases.
Earlier in the evening, Superintendent Johnson revisited the issue of PARCC assessments, saying that her office has prepared a document that outlines critical information for the Class of 2020 and what tests they need to know. She said the parents of high school juniors and their teachers received survey links, with two options for the juniors as to how to engage in the assessments, which are dictated by the state. Superintendent Johnson said the district would continue to share information that becomes available. Tests required for the Class of 2020 include the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests for Algebra 1 and 10th-grade English Language Arts.
Johnson and BOE president Laura Hertzog thanked all the staff members who handled the crisis created by the November 15 snowfall, originally expected to produce a manageable three-inch accumulation before turning to rain but instead becoming a monster storm dropping more than double the amount of snow originally forecasted and changing to rain much later than expected. Board President Hertzog said buses for students scheduled for late dismissals were forced to turn back, leaving students stranded even as their parents were stuck in Manhattan where the Port Authority Bus Terminal was ill-prepared for the last-minute forecast changes. Staff members managed to accommodate students safely at Hillside School without necessitating any overnight stays, and not one child was returned to an empty house. Superintendent Johnson praised numerous staffers, including Business Administrator Emidio D’Andrea, and said she hoped to have clearer procedures for future surprise storms. She also praised paraprofessional Clare Morcella for saving a first-grader’s life at Northeast School on November 14. Morcella chose not to speak, and Superintendent Johnson did not explain the incident.
Also, Nishuane students gave a presentation of a course in Colombian music with instruments they made in class in a program made possible by a Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence (MFEE) grant, and Renaissance School Principal Joseph Putrino gave a presentation celebrating the hands-on learning and interactive engagement at his school, complemented by music and dance performances from his students.