Montclair BoE: Student Equity Controversy Continues; Cheerleaders Protest Coach Firing

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The Montclair Board of Education’s December 5 workshop meeting was not terribly long, but it got terribly heated.  The board members and Superintendent Kendra Johnson had to deal with continuing fallout from Student Equity Advocate Joseph Graham’s presentation at their November 7 meeting regarding complaints and concerns about racism, abuse and harassment that he has received from students and parents.

the Montclair Board of Education

Superintendent Johnson said the presentation may have caused confusion regarding the handling of the information in the complaints.  A revised presentation from Graham is slated for December 17, meant to focus on the process currently used to document how Graham receives those concerns; the process of how those concerns are relayed to the district; the process governing investigations of said concerns; the process that is used to inform all stakeholders of said concerns; the process that Graham uses to document data for each school; and the process that will be used to inform the board of said concerns on a regular basis.  She thanked staffers for raising critical questions of Graham’s report.

Parents were having none of Superintendent Johnson’s explanation of processes.  One parent after another railed against the board and the superintendent in public comment for the way Graham has been undervalued by the district.  Resident Krystle Branch spoke for everyone when she declared that the district has failed to communicate with parents about Graham’s position and place as student equity advocate, and she praised him for going out into the community and talking to residents.  She said that the district should have helped Graham reach out to more people and let people know he was there to reach out.  Residents angrily insisted that the district was doing little if anything in helping black students harassed by white students.  And Petal Robertson, president of the Montclair Education Association, said she did not doubt the validity of the reports from black and other minority students about harassment, and she said that such reports needed to be investigated immediately, and that documentation should be readily available.  Bursts of applause and hollers in support of the parents reverberated through the hall.

Superintendent Johnson said that the presentation scheduled for December 17 would produce clarity for the various processes for handling equity issues, and that the district would step back and look at district structures to see what should be corrected.

Jennifer Goforth, STEM director at Montclair Public Schools

The district also had to deal with a complicated formula for accommodating the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PPARCC) tests that the New Jersey Departmetn of Education (NJDOE) now makes mandatory for graduation.  Jennifer Goforth, the district’s director of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), explained that the state requirements for high school graduation were changed, affecting the class of 2020.  The old requirements said that the members of the Class of 2020 pass any English Language Arts (ELA) 9, 10, or 11 or Geometry or Algebra 1 PARCC test before May 2018, when the rules were changed.  Now, she said, they have three options, or pathways. The first is to take ELA 10 and Algebra 1 at at Level 4 minimum.  The second pathway is that, if they do not take those tests, they can take tests from a list of alternates, provided they take all of the PARCC tests associated with the courses they are enrolled in at the high school.  A list of those alternate tests, along with the first-pathway requirements, is shown below.

The third pathway, Goforth said, is to submit a senior portfolio process, with all state and alternate test scores, transcripts, an intervention plan, and graded math and ELA samples completed after school in April or May 2020.  Details of the tests can be found at the district Web site.  Students who did not take a PARCC test can take the ELA 9 or 10 test between December 11 and December 13 or the Algebra 1 or Geometry test between December 17 and December 19. All tests scheduled for after school beginning at 2:45 P.M.  Students can take additional PARCC tests in April and May 2019 or summer tests between Monday, July 1, 2019 and Thursday, August 1, 2019.  Parents can log on to the Genesis portal and click on “Assessments” to find their children’s scores.  Students can prepare for the PARCC by going to parcc.pearson.com.

Board member Jessica de Koninck was frustrated by the new PARCC standards, but said that if high school juniors have done the necessary work in their courses, they should be fine, and she urged them not to worry so much about the PARCC tests.  Board member Eve Robinson however, said that the district should continue to protest PARCC and advocate for its abolition at a time when so many other states have abandoned it.

Also in public comment, resident Geoff Zylstra said the district had not adequately defined dyslexia as a disability, saying that none of the individualized educational plans for dyslexic students included the definition of the term as defined by the state – a specific learning disability of neurological origin. 

Apart from the student equity concerns, though, the biggest complaints in public comment came from members of the Montclair High School cheerleading squad who protested the dismissal of cheerleading coach JaNiece Jenkins.  Student cheerleading captain Lori Montague said she, as a senior, has had to deal with a squad that gets little respect and no support, along with a lack of consistency in cheerleader coaching.  Montague said that Jenkins had stepped in to fill the void left by a coach who had abruptly walked out on the squad and had restored morale.  Now, she said, Jenkins had been fired and the cheerleaders could not learn why.

Montclair cheerleaders protest the dismissal of coach JaNiece Jenkins at the Montclair Board of Education meeting.

After two tense hours, Board President Laura Hertzog gaveled the public meeting to a close, and the board and the superintendent retreated to a post-meeting executive session.

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