Education

Residents, Educators Gather to Discuss Racial History in Montclair

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MONTCLAIR, NJ - A national movement is growing in public schools across the nation to bring the Black Lives Matter discussion to America's classrooms. On Monday, Montclair educators gathered with local leaders and residents to discuss desegregation in Montclair Schools and to plan a course of action for the future.

From February 5 to 9, Montclair residents and educators joined thousands of educators around the U.S. in hosting week-long discussions about 'Black Lives Matter at School'. Organizers state that this discussion seeks to discuss structural racism, intersectional black identities, black history, and anti-racist movements during a nationally organized week of action.

Each day, Montclair’s 'Week of Action' has been having teachers implement lessons created by TURN, while in the evening, there have been events for educators, students, and community members. 

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According to organizers, the lessons that week correspond to the thirteen guiding principles of Black Lives Matter:

Monday: Restorative Justice, Empathy and Loving Engagement

Tuesday: Diversity and Globalism

Wednesday: Trans-Affirming, Queer Affirming and Collective Value

Thursday: Intergenerational, Black Families and Black Villages

Friday: Black Women and Unapologetically Black

Nationally, a Black Lives Matter at School coalition had come together to coordinate a unified week of action with three goals to work toward ending “zero tolerance” discipline, hiring of more black teachers and mandating black history and ethnic studies in K-12 curriculum.

On Monday night, local residents and educators gathered at the Montclair Fire House for the event hosted by Teachers Undoing Racism Now of Montclair, a newly formed organization. TURN organizers state that their focus is to challenge Montclair educators to examine their own racial biases, paradigms and to understand how these affect their teaching practices and student outcomes. 

A panel discussion during the event painted the picture of how the obstacles and the perseverance of committed citizens, helped them to gain some success in their determination to bring equal education to black students.

In sharing this viewpoint, the audience was able to gain insight to those moments in time that brought desegregation to the Montclair Public School system through the restructuring of the school curriculum, magnet schools and town-wide bussing.

Coordinated by Rodney Jackson, teacher at the Renaissance Middle and TURN organizer, he said, "It's essential for Montclair's schools to continue on the path of racial justice."

"Decreasing school suspension of black students, hiring and retaining black teachers, as well as the implementation and awareness of the Amistad law, are steps in the direction of creating better and more inclusive schools," he continued. 

The Amistad Bill (A1301), sponsored by Assemblymen William D. Payne and Craig A. Stanley, determined that New Jersey schools will recognize the integral part African-Americans have played at every turn in this nation’s history. The Amistad Bill, which became law in 2002, calls on New Jersey schools to incorporate African-American history into the curriculum.

Jackson prefaced the program by showing a documentary entitled, "Montclair Separated." The film was followed by an introduction of Joanne Childs-Ashe who moderated a very informative discussion with individuals that were involved in the desegregation of the Montclair Public School district. They also spoke of how it came to be and its impact in 2018.

Panel participants included Keith M Ali (former Essex County Warden) who presented a very compelling history of the path taken. Through his oral history and collection of news articles, he vividly laid out the timeline for the attending audience to follow showing the contentious fight over forced bussing, lawsuits and the establishment of the Black Student Union at Montclair High School, at the height of the Black power movement of the 1970s.

Carol Willis, former member of the Montclair Board of Education, was instrumental in the creation of the magnet program that currently exist today. She also was part of the original coalition that helped to shape the dialogue and was instrumental in traveling to Trenton to plead the case.

"I was living in London at the time, so I was accustomed to working with children and families from different cultural backgrounds," Willis said. "Upon returning to the states and moving back to Montclair, I was asked to be apart of the Montclair Board of education and I became a part of a group of committed teachers, parents and administrators who were able to show the inadequacies in the town's schooling."

Together they set out to develop a plan of action that made education standards inclusive of all students, regardless of race. Willis and others developed a plan to restructure schools and the coordination cross-town bussing became the essential way to achieve both goals.

Councilor Renee Baskerville shared her family history and spoke of growing up in Montclair.

"While great strides have been made, there still needs to be improvement in Montclair's school system in addressing racial concerns and the disparity as it affects African American males." 

During the program, a touching moment occurred with Baskerville reuniting with Ernest W. Garrett, MD, who was her mentor and longtime family friend. She publicly thanked Garrett for the role he played in her becoming a doctor. Baskerville told the story of how he recruited her while she was still in college at Oberlin.

Closing out the panel discussion, Justin Thompson of the National Independent Black Parents Association  (NIBPA) gave a compelling story as he shared that a disparity still exists in the way that students are treated and how African American families are engaged and involved. Thompson stated that sometimes African American families are treated in a dismissive manner from teachers and administration.

"I remember being in school and it wasn't until my senior year that I took an honors course. When I went to the floor where the class was held, it was like being in another place and you could see the lack of diversity present." 

He also shared stories of friends whose experiences with guidance councilors at Montclair High School were less than encouraging. As African American students were preparing to graduate, Thompson stated that they were being told that they should consider alternative routes as opposed to attending a 4-year college program. Had they listened, Thompson stated that they would not be graduates of such schools as Hampton University. 

Thompson made it clear that NIBPA plans to advocate for fairness in the education of black youth. His goal is to make sure that open conversation and engagement of parents is paramount to make sure that the needs of African American students are met. 

The panelists' personal testimonies seemingly opened the eyes of many who attended by giving a history lesson and insight of a Montclair that was not devoid of racial tensions. While bussing is no longer the central issue, many advocates and educators stated that the concern now is the large percentage of African American males being classified, tracked and placed in classroom settings that they feel are designed to foster failure.

Two more sessions planned for this week are as follows:

Thursday, February 8th: Students Speak, Teachers Listen
Friday, February 9th: Voices of Black Women

For information on Turn go to https://www.facebook.com/TURNNMontclairSchools/

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