The Montclair Board of Education reviewed three separate presentations during its November 7 workshop meeting, and even though none of these presentations involved infrastructure, the subject came up again from a committee report and in public comment.
District Operations Director Felice Harrison-Crawford reviewed the recently completed summer camp season for the board, with camp director Valerie Hampton assisting in the presentation. They reported that the number of students taking part in the sessions offered by the camp has increased dramatically overall since the school district regained control of the camp program from a private vendor after the summer of 2015. This past summer, there were 1,262 participants, not close to the 2,016 students that took part in 2008 but more than double the number of participants in the program when it was administrated by the vendor. Expenditures for 2018 were $311,855 compared to $210,340 for 2016, but the program maintained a healthy balance of $157,333, about $19,000 over the 2016 balance.
Dr. Harrison-Crawford and Ms. Hampton said benefits of the camp included scholarships to children who qualified for free and reduced meals and a very low cost for administration – only five percent of revenues – that allows a greater emphasis on spending for staff salaries, staff training and amenities. Harrison-Crawford and Hampton hoped to get a jump start on the 2019 season with requests for proposals for the budget going out as early as this month and planning meetings for the camps before Christmas, with training and supply orders slated for spring. The efficient spending plans the camp has followed and the many opportunities it offers has resulted into enormously positive feedback from parents in their survey, the overwhelming majority of whom are satisfied and without a single “unsatisfactory” rating. Hampton calculated that fees range from $150 for a four-hour-day program to $320 for a full-day program. Programs can be as short as three weeks and as long as six weeks, so costs may vary.
Suggestions for improvements include more pool time, more camp sessions with “extended day” options, and discounts for families with multiple children. Another suggestion caught the attention of Board President Laura Hertzog – running the camps until late August, which she said was sure to be very popular.
Also, Joseph Graham, the district’s new student equity advocate, explained his job description for the board, saying that his job was to investigate student issues of concern about equal treatment and fairness. He has looked into numerous cases involving student discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment of students by students, but many of his cases have also involved student-teacher relations. Graham said he has had to look into issues regarding teachers that push students along without regard to their academic development, and he has even found that students of color are more likely to be told not to worry about bullying than white students.
Racial discrimination cases and matriculation cases involve the biggest share of Graham’s workload – about 40 percent combined – but the overwhelming majority of students he deals with are black, and 70 percent of his cases come from the high school; the middle schools involving 15 percent of his cases. Graham said many of the students who go to him for help usually seek out a mentor or a tutor to overcome their academic difficulties, while others deal with problems in their personal lives. In working with these students, Graham aims at decreasing grade repetition, increasing the graduation rate for black students, and getting all students connected to community partnerships to provide assistance.
Board member Latifah Jannah asked Graham about the referral process. Graham explained that he usually visits the high school away from his main office, and he is readily available through the district’s Web site. He said he is in the district’s various schools throughout the week, and that word-of-mouth referrals have proven to be effective. One issue he has found necessary to combat is gaming addiction, a trend noticed by board member Joseph Kavesh. Graham said he understands the value of listening to students as a form of communication.
“Through listening,” Graham said, “you allow yourself to be an ear to those in need.”
Also, Superintendent Kendra Johnson invited the security group Stonegate to brief the board on its assessment on the district’s safety measures. The firm found the schools in the district to be very safe, and it has advised the district on how to prepare for various danger situations, including violent storms and missing children. Each situation is different, requiring different reactions, and Stonegate found that the district is handling them well. The group did suggest improvements and cited security gaps to the district, but plans of action to address those gaps are confidential and cannot involve the public.
In public comment, Montclair High School junior Peter Roy addressed the board as one of over 130 juniors who need to make up a PARCC test in order to graduate in 2020. Roy had been told by his guidance counselor that he had fulfilled the PARCC requirements necessary to graduate because he had taken the tests for Algebra 1 and ELA9. Roy subsequently opted out of ELA10 and Geometry PARCC tests. Months later, he learned that there had been a mistake and ELA 10 was in fact required for him to graduate. Roy, who participates in a three-year summer leadership program, asked the board to offer students an opportunity to make up the PARCC tests they missed during the academic calendar year, rather than the summer when many students already have commitments. Superintendent Johnson responded after public comment to Roy, saying the district would be addressing the issue. A letter by the end of this month would be emailed to affected students offering an option to take the test either during the academic school year or in the summer.
Resident Geoff Zylstra complimented the district for better screening of dyslexia cases. But resident Monique Wallace, a parent of a high school student, was indignant over failure to receive notice of a fire drill at the high school consistently, and she said she was “scared” over incidents such as the collapsing staircases and a rumored incident in the gymnasium involving a possible fire. Wallace said that the district was too reactive toward the high school’s problems.
Superintendent Johnson apologized for the communications lapses Wallace referred to, and she urged parents to e-mail her directly with their problems. She said that inspections of the high school were going beyond what the sate required in order to get a handle on things, and she also apologized for the temporary module classrooms not being set up yet. The four modules are sitting in the parking lot behind the high school’s George Inness Annex, but they haven’t been completed because most of the work involved outdoor tasks – electric wiring, for example – that the area’s interminably rainy weather has prevented.
Kavesh reported from the board’s facilities and technology committee that he was concerned about the aging infrastructure at the high school – not just the stairs but also the roofs, and he said that the district needed to get a better idea of how many repairs were needed at all of the schools and how much they would cost. He also advocated giving facilities a separate committee of their own, the better to spend more time on inspecting the various buildings.