Residents Reflect On Segregation and the Magnet School System in Montclair

Panelists who are involved in the Montclair School District answered questions from audience members. Credits: Megan Spinelli
The film "Our Schools, Our Town" was created by Masiel Rogriguez-Vars and was shown as part of the 2017 Price of Liberty Film and Discussion series. Credits: Photo courtesy of the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence
Dr. Lillie Edwards hosted the event as part of the 2017 Price of Liberty Film and Discussion series. Credits: Megan Spinelli
Dr. Lillie Edwards hosted the event as part of the 2017 Price of Liberty Film and Discussion series. Credits: Megan Spinelli
Panelists who are involved in the Montclair School District answered questions from audience members. Credits: Megan Spinelli
Audience members asked questions regarding segregation and the magnet system. Credits: Megan Spinelli

MONTCLAIR, NJ - Montclair residents were treated Wednesday night to an informative film and discussion on the history of the magnet school system in Montclair.

Hosted by the Montclair History Center, the Montclair community gathered at the Montclair Public Library Wednesday, March 22 to view the film “Our Schools, Our Town. The film – which is part of 2017 Price of Liberty Film and Discussion Series – documents the history of the magnets, which were started in order to put a stop to segregation in town. Dr. Lillie Edwards hosted the event and began with a PowerPoint presentation.

The slideshow detailed the national and statewide trends of segregation and racism throughout history, and put into perspective how Montclair was a town that followed the trends of inequality.

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“We are often afraid to put that on the table, but in fact it’s right in the middle of the table,” Edwards said. “It’s the centerpiece you might say.”

The film featured interviews with people who have either gone through or worked in the Montclair School District, including former principals, activists, teachers and residents, who all told their stories and experiences with segregation in the district.

Before the magnet system was put in place, schools on the south side of town were mostly minorities and schools on the north side were mostly white. The residents who spoke in the film knew something had to be done to stop this and so the magnet system was born.

Instead of sending children to school based on their neighborhood, parents and children got to choose their school based on the magnet they preferred. Although the magnets have changed over time, today’s magnets include global studies, gifted and talented, environmental science and visual and performing arts, among others.

The event featured a discussion following the film between the audience and various people involved in the Montclair School District. The panel included filmmaker Masiel Rodriguez-Vars, teacher Eli Siebert, teacher Davida Harewood, former Board of Education member Dr. Carole Willis, Councilwoman Dr. Renee Baskerville and long-time resident and former teacher Carol Brown.

One question that was asked by an audience member was about the direction that magnets have taken and whether or not they need to be changed with time.

“Your observations are spot on. Montclair is changing. Our demographics are changing,” Baskerville said. “There’s a value, though, in recognizing that we want to keep our magnets.”

With socioeconomic changes constantly happening in town, Baskerville added that the board of education needs to revisit the system and make adjustments accordingly, but that the system itself needs to remain in place.

“We’re not done. Things continue to change,” Baskerville said. “We need to constantly be vigilant, be aware and advocate for our magnet theme.”

Rodriguez-Vars also touched on how important it is to know why the magnets were even created in the first place, which is something she realized after doing research at the library.

“I had no idea how contentious it had been,” Rodriguez-Vars said, adding that after meeting Willis and Brown, she knew she had to tell the story. “The story was too amazing not to capture on film. I learned from that process that it is absolutely critical to continue to tell the story.”

The filmmaker and historian also touched on how important the PTA and parents are in the district, a sentiment that Willis also echoed.

“The thing that makes Montclair special in so many ways is the community -- Montclair residents who do take a look at what they want and make sure that it happens,” Willis said. “Yes, the magnet schools have changed. Through the kind of interaction between the community and the school district -- that’s an ongoing need.”

Although the Montclair School District has come a long way since implementing the magnet system, Baskerville – as well as the other panelists – agreed that there is work to be done and that the district needs to constantly strive to reach the people of lower socioeconomic statuses.

Still, Siebert pointed out how great the district is and how proud he is to have grown up in the magnet system. He also thanked his fellow panelists for the work they had done to get the school district to where it is now.

“I’m a product of this system and this has changed my life more than you’ll ever know,” Siebert said, adding that because of the magnet system, he was able to attend Hillside Elementary School. “Who knows what my life would be right now had I not experienced Hillside. So everything that you did, I can’t thank you enough because I couldn’t be happier as a teacher.”

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