Creating an “Acrobatic” District: Chatham Superintendent LaSusa Focuses on Finding Balance in Education

Chatham Superintendent Dr. Michael LaSusa gave a presentation on "balance' on Monday Credits: TAP Chatham

CHATHAM, NJ - Chatham Superintendent Dr. Michael LaSusa presented parents and other members of the Chatham community with an outlook on the current state of the district’s student body on Monday night.

In his presentation, LaSusa discussed district trends, student demographics, academic performance, and wellness. The primary focus of his discussion, however, was finding the right balance in all of these areas.

LaSusa used the term “acrobatic” to describe the balance the district is striving to achieve for its student body. In terms of where Chatham stands “acrobatically,” LaSusa noted that students are “killing it academically,” yet they are “stressed, not sleeping enough, and engaging in concerning behaviors.”

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The academic success of Chatham students does not come as a newfound surprise to the district; Chatham students as a whole have been some of the highest performing academically in the state for a number of years. Nonetheless, the statistics LaSusa discussed revealed such an abnormal variance between Chatham students and those of the rest of the country and surrounding area, that those who attended the presentation couldn’t help but be silently awed.

On average, Chatham students score three years above their grade level on standardized testing. They score a total of five years ahead of students from poorer cities in New Jersey, like Camden, and two to three years ahead of students from the median districts.

Another impressive statistic: the consistently high rate at which Chatham students attend and graduate from competitive four-year universities. In 2016, 95 percent of students attended a 4-year university; the bulk of these students attending top tier colleges, ranked under the admission categories of very, highly, and most competitive.

Even more astounding, 24 of the 93 students who were considered “middle of the pack learners,” with GPAs in the middle 33 percent, attended the most competitive universities in the country. These students, who were merely considered “average” by Chatham standards, ended up attending schools ranked as competitively as the Ivies, Boston College, Tufts, and Georgetown. Additionally, 100 percent of these students attended college after high school, with 99 percent attending a four-year university and 1 percent attending a two-year university.

One of the key takeaways of this group for the district: none of the 24 of these “middle of the pack” students who now attend “most competitive” universities took all four honors classes available to them as freshman. LaSusa stated that he would rather see students start off as freshman taking less honors classes, and gradually increase their load of competitive classes as they enter 10th and 11th grade, and so on.

“There is so much anxiety and pressure on students to take honors classes,” LaSusa said. Yet, this long stood belief that students must take as many honors classes as possible to get into the best universities is clearly not true. Middle school teachers have recently tried to steer incoming 9th graders away from over committing themselves as freshmen, in favor of adding competitive classes to their schedule as they progress through high school.

Academic success is not only limited to average Chatham students. In 2016 and 2017, 74 percent of special education students at Chatham attended or will attend a 4-year university. Additionally, the bulk of these special education students attended or will attend highly selective, very selective, and competitive colleges. These statistics are miles ahead of the national average.

Although Chatham’s students are clearly excelling academically, it appears to be at the cost of their wellness. LaSusa discussed statistics from the Chatham Madison Coalition, which revealed that students are not sleeping enough, stressed out, and involved in unhealthy habits.

The majority of high school students reported spending over three hours on homework every night, and receive only six hours or less of sleep a night. Females in particular are suffering from a lack of sleep; twice as many reported sleeping only five hours or less a night.

Stress and suicide are also major issues burdening students. Nine percent of high schoolers from Chatham and Madison reported considering suicide, and five percent reported that they had planned suicide. Additionally, 12 percent of middle schoolers and 17 percent of high schoolers reported using opiates without needing them for pain in the last 30 days.

With Chatham students exceeding the district’s expectations academically, SDOC’s primary focus for the future will be finding a balance for students by promoting wellness and raising awareness regarding unhealthy habits. LaSusa stated that the district’s “goal for students is to find balance in being well, being prepared, and being connected.”

Chatham schools have already started to take active steps to becoming a more balanced district. School faculty has begun to take measures to ensure that students are finding interest and meaning in what they are doing. Schools have also taken in a series of wellness initiatives including mindfulness awareness, growth mindset, character education programs, homework adjustments, and even differentiation of classroom furniture, intended to decrease rigidity in the classroom.

“Our roles as educators is to be data centered and provide as much information as we can, so parents and students can make well informed decisions,” LaSusa said.

At the end of the presentation, one Chatham parent suggested holding an assembly for high school seniors, just before graduation festivities begin, to go over wellness in college. The reasoning behind this suggestion is to have these ideas fresh in the minds of Chatham students as they enter their freshman year of college. LaSusa and other parents and community members praised the idea, especially after the recent incident at Penn State which occurred just weeks ago.

“Every single student from Chatham should read the Penn State story page by page,” said LaSusa.

As the 2016-2017 school year winds down and the district plans for 2018, SDOC and the Chatham community will actively work toward creating a healthier, more balanced student environment. Students will hopefully maintain this balance in their lives after high school, preventing tragedies like that of Penn State from affecting the Chatham community.

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