A Tale of Two Meetings: Teachers Honored for Outstanding Service; Parents “Disappointed” by BOE’s Shutdown of Free Speech

EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ – Last night’s East Brunswick Board of Education meeting was a study in opposites.  It began with a happy, well-attended recognition ceremony for premiere educators, and ended with an unhappy, well-attended challenge to the state of standardized testing in the district.

Ruth Davitt, Tom Dzedziak, and Joyce Lentz were honored for years of exemplary service, professionalism, good humor, and compassion as teachers in the East Brunswick Public Schools last night at a joyful induction “Wall of Honor” ceremony at the Board of Education offices on Route 18.  Speakers Dr. Dana Zimbicki, President of the East Brunswick Education Association; Mr. Andrew Scanlon, President of the East Brunswick Principals and Supervisors Association; Todd Simmens, President of the East Brunswick Board of Education joined Superintendent Dr. Victor Valeski in a presentation that highlighted what is most cherished in the work of education professionals.

All retirees from the East Brunswick schools, the honored teachers will have their nameplates placed on the “Wall of Honor.”  Davitt, a former President of the EBEA, was a Reading Specialist at Hammarskjold who started out at Frost.  Dziedziak taught Math at Churchill, and Lentz taught Social Studies at East Brunswick High School.  It was noted by all presenters that the teachers made an impact both inside the classroom and outside of it, engaging students in a positive way and directing them toward success.

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When Mrs. Lentz was being recognized by Dr. Valeski, some parents, who had been waiting outside the meeting so as not to disrupt the proceedings, entered the room in a large group.  There was some confusion about whether or not the ceremony was over.  The result was a less-focused ending to the procedures.  The BOE took a break, and the meeting resumed when the room was cleared of those who had only come to see the ceremony.

At least two dozen parents and students came to the BOE meeting to protest overtesting in the East Brunswick Schools in general and to ask the Board and the administration to consider a proposal regarding those students who wish to refuse to take the PARCC tests specifically.  The parents and students were prepared and eager to speak.  However, only three of them were able to be heard.

At the beginning of this second part of the meeting, BOE President Todd Simmens announced that the public portion would last only 15 minutes in total, and that the group could “use the time as they wished” to present their views.  Parents in the group were outraged that their time to present had been cut short.  On the Board agenda, it is noted that “ in accordance with Board By-Law 0167, individual comments are limited to five minutes.”

Each parent had expected the chance to speak for the allotted time.  Simmens stated that the BOE would follow this meeting with a 4-hour private session, so that’s why the time was cut short for the public session.  Indeed, a single vote passed all other items on the agenda.  He said, “Your time begins now.”

Parent Deb Cornavaca stated that the fifteen-minute limit “was an infringement of the public’s rights.”  She received verbal support from the audience.  Cornavaca went on to assert, “It is a lie that it is a High School graduation requirement for students to take the PARCC.  This misinformation must stop.”  She urged the BOE “not to be complicit.”  “You have choices, “ she said, “ If you choose to remain silent, you are failing in your responsibilities.”  She alleged that the testing environment is “violating the sacred relationship among students, parents and teachers,” referring directly to the current practice of all graded papers having to be returned to the school.

Parent Karen Bolestein followed with a lengthy discussion of the importance of play and its influence on educational practice, noting that students learn best through discovery and play.  She quoted educational psychologists Vigodsky, Piaget, and Erikson and cited contemporary brain research.

Parent Jodi Hoover stated her opposition to the state’s attempt to make PARCC “the only path to graduation.”  She asserted her belief in an alternate testing system that would provide several paths to the goal.  She asked the BOE to remember that they were hired or voted in as “educators, not testing watchdogs for our community.”  She came armed with statistics regarding PARRC, including a reminder that 19 of the 26 original PARCC states are not using the assessment now.  She also brought resolutions from local districts including Hopewell Valley and West Windsor that affirm a student’s right not to take the PARCC as a high-stakes assessment.

The public portion was ended, much to the dismay of the agitated audience.  President Simmens agreed that the PARCC is a “very deficient” instrument.  Board Attorney Matt Giacobbe reminded the parents that “the BOE members agreed to follow the laws.  He noted that, due to last year’s large number of students opting out, the East Brunswick Schools may lose public funding at both the state and federal level.  He advised the group to address their concerns to the NJ Board of Education and the New Jersey Department of Education.  His remarks were poorly received by the parents.

BOE Vice president Vicki Becker said that if it were up to her, “We wouldn’t give any standardized tests, including the SAT and ACT.”  She noted that colleges are encouraging students to present portfolios and videos as part of the application process.  She closed by saying that “the most important thing is what students do with the knowledge they get.

Before the Board moved to a closed session, Simmens promised to review the resolutions presented by the parents and consider the possibility of presenting a resolution for the EB schools.  For right now, he said, “We are at the mercy of the state and federal government.”

During a brief break, BOE member and East Brunswick Mayoral candidate Dr. Brad Cohen noted that he had never been a fan of the PARCC or the Common Core Standards: “The district has always done a good job and turned out a good product.”

He asked, “Is this the test that’s going to get kids better prepared for college?  What does a high school diploma mean?”

Four students from Hammarskjold who attended the meeting, planning to speak, said that they were “disappointed.”  “They did not hear us out,” said one seventh –grader, “ that was very disrespectful.  They didn’t follow their own rules.”

As the Board exited, parents lingered to continue their discussion of the events of the evening and the plan to move forward resisting PARCC.  Said Deb Cornavaca, “ The tension of everyone involved with the whole testing experience – teachers, administrators, parents, kids – speaks to the dysfunction that this test has imposed on the world of education.  Everyone agrees, but they are powerless to do anything.”

The Board had a long, difficult closed session ahead that lasted several hours, as Dr. Valeski noted in an interview today.  In an e-mail letter sent out to the district today, Valeski stated that the BOE has agreed that the PARCC not to require the PARCC for graduation this year.  He discussed a recent statement by the NJDOE that the PARCC will be a graduation requirement for the class of 2021. 

He noted that the Board was agreeable to looking at proposals that were presented by the parents or that were generated by other districts.  However, he affirmed that “it is the responsibility of the district to be in compliance with the law.  We can’t control decisions made by the state, but we need to be flexible and adaptable.  Currently we are in a corrective action plan because we did not meet the 95% participation threshold.”  Valeski was certain to note that the BOE is “sensitive to the feelings of the district.  We are in the process of reviewing assessments in general and the amount of time they occupy in our program in East Brunswick.”

The next Board of Education meeting will take place at 8:00 on April 28.  The parents plan to return, and the BOE promises to be ready to discuss testing.  Maybe Wall of Honor teachers Lentz, Dziedziak, and Davitt could remind everyone of what has made East Brunswick a great district.




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