MONTCLAIR, NJ - Interim Superintendent Nathan Parker bids farewell to the Montclair Public Schools. Tuesday, June 30 was his last day in the district.
Parker's tenure in Montclair was riddled with controversy. He came to the district in August of 2019, after the unexpected resignation of Kendra Johnson.
Then, in the fall of 2019, Parker came under fire after having stated during a local NAACP meeting, that he did not mind if a teacher was racist, as long as they don't teach in racist ways. Parker then was invited back to the NAACP meeting to explain himself and further stated that he felt comfortable around black people because his family owned a dairy farm and employed four black families. This did not go over well with the community and Parker issued a statement apologizing that he was misunderstood. Parents took issue that he wasn't apologizing for his comments, but that he was misunderstood.
Soon thereafter, parents began calling for his resignation during each subsequent Board meeting. Parker and the Board then had an armed police officer approach a speaker at the podium, during a Board meeting, which drew national attention and outrage. Having officers to work the Board meetings in Montclair were an unusual practice. Continued calls for Parker's resignation ensued until a replacement had been identified.
Additionally, parents became concerned when Parker moved the Student Equity Advocate out of his office. The community cited that it was a move to make him uncomfortable enough to leave, which he eventually did. He also brought in several interim administrators, who were drawing upwards of $500-$850 per day each. In addition, he hired a new Assistant Superintendent, to whom he has ties to. As the new Assistant Superintendent, Kalisha Morgan, used to work with Parker when he was Superintendent in Orange. She was approved during the June 25 Board meeting, five days prior to Parker's departure from the district.
Parker wrote, in an email to parents, "It has been a pleasure serving as your Interim Superintendent of Schools for the last 10 months. I have met many thoughtful students, parents/caregivers, educators, and community partners. My wife and I watched the virtual graduation. It was such a pleasure to see so many young, vibrant young people who represent many different background [sic]."
The new Superintendent will begin on July 1. Superintendent Jonathan C. Ponds was unanimously appointed Superintendent of Schools by the Montclair Board of Education at its regularly scheduled May 6, 2020 meeting.
After serving as Superintendent in Moonachie, NJ, his contract extends to June 30, 2025. Ponds comes to the district in the age of COVID-19, which has been particularly challenging for districts across New Jersey to navigate, as many students were placed on remote learning for the final four months of the school year.
As the Superintendent of Schools/Principal of the Moonachie Public Schools in Moonachie, NJ, he is credited with turning around a culturally and economically diverse student and family population. Under his leadership he states that he raised student achievement, increased public support, established significant university, state, and local support, and established exemplary fiscal practices. He will be completing his fifth year in Moonachie when he transitions to Montclair.
Prior to Moonachie, he was Principal of the 780 student Parsons Elementary School in North Brunswick, NJ from August 2012 until August 2015. Ponds has also served as a Special Education teacher, basketball coach, vice principal, and dean of students prior to his building and district leadership positions.
He earned his Doctorate in Educational Leadership at Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island. He earned a Master of Education degree with a concentration in Moderate Special Needs from Cambridge College, in Cambridge, MA. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina where he earned a full scholarship to play Division II soccer. As a lifelong learner who takes seriously the promise of education for all, he also earned a Certificate of Advanced Educational Leadership (CAEL) from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Parker's letter is below:
Dear Colleagues, Families, Caregivers, and Community Members,
It has been a pleasure serving as your Interim Superintendent of Schools for the last 10 months. I have met many thoughtful students, parents/caregivers, educators, and community partners. My wife and I watched the virtual graduation. It was such a pleasure to see so many young, vibrant young people who represent many different background.
Response to COVID-19
I am especially grateful to all members of our 1200 member staff. These last four months have tested us all. My thanks go to all of our staff, students, and parents for learning along with us and putting your best effort forward in a most challenging environment. Some of the most innovative instruction has emerged during this period of time. We have also missed the mark with a number of our students.
I suspect there will be much learned about remote instruction that will carry over once things are “back to normal.” Most remarkably, people from distant locations are communicating with each other more than ever before.
We have tried overall, in spite of the challenges of COVID 19, to move the district forward by addressing a number of the concerns evident in September 2019. The Board of Education has successfully selected a permanent Superintendent who was appointed May 6. Dr. Ponds, although completing work in his prior district, has spent considerable time learning about the district before starting on July 1.
The Board of Education has modified its governance structure to build greater board member capacity and commitment. Leadership of the board will change annually as will the leadership of the committees. As a result, all members of the board will develop an overall detailed knowledge base of all district operations prior to becoming Board President.
Curriculum and Instruction
We have made incremental changes in all major district functions. Instruction has become more coordinated across the elementary schools and the middle schools. One major effort in the elementary schools was to improve the implementation of Go Math. In addition, curriculum articulation among the elementary, middle, and high schools has improved. All federal grants, such as ESEA, are closely aligned with curriculum priorities.
The Human Resource function is stronger. Appointments for difficult to fill positions, such as advanced placement physics, are now in place. Most faculty positions are filled for the fall. Performance assessment at the classroom level and administrative level has been strengthened. We have reduced administrative positions to enable more focus on classroom instruction. We now have a much better process for properly placing teachers on the salary guide. Parent and Student Equity Advocacy has been placed within the portfolio of the Director Of Operations and School Support.
Financial management has also taken a step forward. The budget process began much earlier. The budget calendar spells out which sections of the budget will be presented when, so transparency and collaboration have been increased. In addition, the meetings with community groups regarding the budget - PTAC, SEPAC, NAACP, and MEA - were productive. This setting allowed for a closer examination of different sections of the budget than was possible at board meetings. We also linked the budget to educational outcomes. Budget expenditures prioritized the elimination of the achievement gap and higher student achievement. We introduced Zero Based Budgeting so all expenditures will be reexamined each year. This will take time to fully implement, as budgeting has historically been incremental in Montclair.
Special Education programs continued to improve and as a result litigation decreased. We also concentrated on creating programs internally, which will enable more of our out-of-district placed students to return to the district. Furthermore, the need to improve multisensory learning and literacy for our youngest learners are now considered priorities.
Our facilities have been poorly maintained for decades and building failures in the last couple of years highlighted this challenge. The Board of Education conducted a search for an architectural firm. EI Associates was selected to develop a five-year, Long-Range Facility Plan to analyze structural integrity, mechanical systems and educational adequacy. We know that educational adequacy speaks to the need for schools to be built for 21st century skill and knowledge acquisition. An early peek into EI’s analysis of educational adequacy suggests exciting opportunities to repurpose sections of our schools
Communication with the press improved. In general, press coverage was positive. The unmet communication challenge of the district is management and response to social media. Although our website and twitter account increased the frequency of important postings, we were unsuccessful in countering the negative tone and misinformation posted on social media. We successfully kept staff and families informed throughout the spring responding to the constant ebb and flow of COVID 19 information.
I found meetings with the NAACP Education Committee and PTAC very helpful throughout the year. Both groups provided good sounding boards for new ideas and initiatives. In addition, collaboration with the city officials was critical to the success of the district. I especially want to thank representatives from the police department who helped us plan security improvements.
We provided meals throughout the COVID crisis. Each Monday during the summer we will deliver a week’s worth of breakfasts and lunches to qualified families. In addition, also on Mondays, a week's worth of breakfasts and lunches can be picked up by all families at Toni’s Kitchen.
Technology Equipment and Support
Technology equipment remains in homes throughout the summer for both students and faculty. More than 550 chromebooks and 55 hotspots were distributed during the COVID crisis and they will remain in the hands of our students over the summer. In addition, technology support will be offered throughout the summer. The self-service vestibule located at Hillside School every Monday from the hours of 9 AM to 12 PM for repairs and device distribution will be operational. You can also call the technology support line at 3010-259-1510 from 8 AM to 3 PM during the summer. Technology requests by teachers and administrators continue to be handled using Zendesk.
The availability of devices at home over the summer will continue options for additional learning.
Pre-planning for September
We surveyed parents and staff. Over 3300 parents and 802 staff responded to the surveys. Clearly we had an amazing response. Information gleaned from these responses will be helpful in planning for the Fall. Many thanks to all the parents and staff who completed the surveys and provided open ended responses. The parent survey responses are attached.
Five design teams were set up in June to begin envisioning what schooling might look like in the Fall. Special Education and regular education parents, faculty, and administrative representatives were members of the teams. Three design teams focused on needs identified during the Spring: K-2 instruction, mental health, and students who disconnected from the learning process. Two of the design teams focused on likely Fall scenarios: the continuation of remote instruction and a hybrid model of in-school and remote learning. The results of this preliminary planning are limited, as the teams were only able to meet two times. In recent days the state has provided additional frameworks for learning so the planning process may move in different directions.
In conclusion, we have made progress; however, there is still much to do to move the Montclair Schools forward. My best wishes to each of you for a safe and productive summer.
Dr. Nathan N. Parker