MAPLEWOOD, NJ - A new organization of concerned parents held a community forum at the Maplewood Memorial Library on Saturday to discuss the problems encountered by black students in the South Orange-Maplewood school district.  The “SOMA Parents of Students of African Descent Workshop” is seeking to identify and change aspects of the educational experience in the district that they see as unfair.

Walter Fields, one of the group’s organizers, described the group as “a group of concerned parents who have come together over the plight of black students in our school district.”  He said the group’s goal is “not constant conversation, but action to change the school district, given all that we know about racial disparities in our school district and individual cases of disparate treatment.”

He went on to say that there is an attitude in the district that seems to suggest “that our black children are not capable, a low expectation that is put upon them and results in many of our brilliant, gifted, bright young black boys and girls underachieving in our schools.”  The group has a moral mission, he said, that “our children deserve to have equal access to the best education possible that will give them a bright future in this world and nothing less.  We come not to talk about disparity, but we come to hold the Board of Education and the School District accountable for what we see as an unacceptable disparity and treatment of our children.”

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Dr. Alissa Gardenhire noted that the group had been organizing for months and outlined their mission.  They want to eliminate academic achievement disparities and address the “concern over the lack of diversity and cultural competency among the teachers and staff in the school district; disproportionate rates of disciplinary actions taken against black students from elementary school onward; the failure to implement the state-mandated black history curriculum; the dearth of black male and other non-white teachers in the district; and the overall treatment of black students in the school district and in the larger community.”

She said the group would work via advocacy within the board of education and in the schools; intervention in policy matters; research; policy development; community engagement; and empowerment.

Fields noted that Columbia High School’s student population is 54 percent black, but only 14 percent of students in Advanced Placement math and science courses are black.  He asked, “Why are our children not being afforded the same quality of education and same opportunities as their white peers who they have attended school with since kindergarten?”

Mauri Myers-Solages and Ralph Solages asked those in attendance to get involved with the organization and help find solutions.

“We can be pro-black children and not be anti-anybody,” Fields said.  “Our school district has the opportunity to be a model for the nation of a school district that actually works for everybody, black, white, Latino, Asian, whoever.  We don’t have that right now. What we have is the façade of diversity and a lot of unwarranted backslapping, and a lot of cheerleading that’s going on, but our children are being harmed.”

Dr. Michele Fine spoke to the group about her experience with a similar organization called “Montclair Cares About Schools.”  She said a key to her group’s success has been to work closely with both the teachers’ union and the civil rights community.  Getting all of the stakeholders to work together rather than being adversarial is very important.  She said the culture of fear in schools is real.  Teachers are afraid to address the topic of racism.  She feels that suspensions are overused as a form of discipline and the use of special education to segregate schools should be researched.

Courtney Bowie, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, spoke about racial disparities in suspension rates.  A New Jersey native, she said she was surprised at the data, which shows that across the nation the rate of suspensions among students is about 6 percent, but in SOMA, over 20 percent of black students with disabilities are suspended each year, while only 4% of white non-disabled students are suspended.  Those numbers have led the ACLU to take a closer look at our district.  She said district policies are race-neutral but they do not yet know why enforcement is not.  Suspension should be a last resort, especially for students with disabilities, she said.

A spirited discussion followed, with parents asking what they can do right now.  Fields suggested being present in the schools and advocating for students, as well as empowering students to advocate for themselves.

A future meeting of the organization will be held to formulate strategies to achieve their goals.

A Facebook page has been created to communicate with the workshop: