MONTCLAIR, NJ - The Montclair League of Women Voters hosted a discussion on the achievement gap and standardized testing with guest speaker Ronald Bolandi, Montclair Interim Superintendent of Schools, Tuesday evening at Montclair Fire Headquarters.

The superintendent informed the group that the Achievement Gap Committee did a great job in providing an extensive report which can be found on the district website.  Some in attendance seemed surprised as Bolandi spoke candidly about what he called "the K-5 literacy issue" stating that the education gap starts during those early school years. According to Bolandi, "It's more an attitude gap and a race gap than an achievement gap.” He went on to proclaim that all kids come into school with the same brainpower in kindergarten, and by 5th grade there is a gap between minority and non-minority students.

He said the gap could close, and not spill into middle and high school, if children left 5th grade without a literacy issue.

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Asserting that the gap has widened over the years, and that it is not a socioeconomic issue, Bolandi qualified his opinion saying, “It’s a fallacy that kids in poverty can’t learn”.

He referenced having taught in lower Manhattan, in 1972, and reading The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, and suggested there is a systemic issue where teachers and people look at minority students differently than at non-minority students.

Presumably referring to the body of work from the late forties which asserted that erroneous teacher expectations may lead students to perform accordingly, Bolandi said teachers may hold an inner belief that says, "OK you're from poverty, you're black, we got you here, we did a really good job, we don't have go any farther, and we stop because we think that because the kids are in poverty that’s all they can move."

Furthering his belief that the education gap is a result of how the district treats minorities, was his statement, “Why are minority kids classified more in the school district than white kids are? Why do we have a federal complaint in the Office of Civil Rights that still wasn’t addressed properly?” Aiming not to offend but to draw attention, Bolandi said, “You have to realize this is not an indictment, this is asking -- Are we going to do anything?”

His call to action involved having the district educate their personnel to make sure all children are being challenged at their respective levels. While he acknowledged that it would be a major undertaking, he said the district has to retrain the staff to give children a good literacy base, there needs to be a financial commitment, training in differentiation, partnering with Montclair State University, and that the community needs to commit to back these efforts.

He would like the various organizations in town to come together and put aside differences to achieve these goals. Bolandi suggested bringing back programs such as AVID and STARS which were previously in place to help struggling students.

In detailing some of the reallocation of funds, Bolandi called the eleven schools islands, and said there needed to be consistent programs, and better technology education across the schools. Assuaging some fears of what his proposed cuts might look like, Bolandi spoke of a district he worked at, prior to Montclair, and his comments appeased anyone worried that necessary personnel might be sacrificed for the cause, by saying, “In that case I had to do a lot of cleaning house, I don’t think I need to do that here.”

When an audience member asked whether he would be willing to take the job as Superintendent and drop the title of interim in order to garner more belief in his commitment to the community, Bolandi said because of his retired status, the State of New Jersey mandates he could only work for the district for two years. However, he assured the group that quality programs would transcend him and that he could put them in place before he left. He pledged to the community he would give them as much time as needed.

Mindset seemed to be more a focus than dollars and cents. Bolandi asked if the community had the will to reallocate funds to educational priorities. Following that, the topic of magnets came up. He said, “We need to dust off the magnets because they aren’t working.” He suggested the magnets were becoming the core program and instruction should be shifted away from the magnets and toward the core curriculum. His controversial stance was confirmed by his final comment, “We have to give up those sacred programs that really don’t do anything for kids.”

Bolandi suggested that we could be receiving more donations from Josh Weston, a local philanthropist who in the past has publicly warned that American students are falling behind in science. Bolandi said Mr. Weston might be willing to put 20% toward a STEM initiative if he felt the community was committed.

Bolandi said class size is too big, that classes should have no more than 20 students, and in such cases there would be no need for SAIL (gifted classes), as there would be the ability to differentiate within the class. The different class sizes from school to school, was also a notable issue.

Bolandi began speaking on the topic of testing by asserting that testing is commonplace. He referenced several tests required for graduation in the past, saying they were nothing new. He quickly added that while NJASK was nonintrusive and returned corrected in a timely basis, PARCC was a standardized test given to our students, which took double the time. 

He noted that Montclair had a drop out rate of 60% and said the test would hence not be valid to adjust instruction.

Bolandi said, “Teachers are never afraid of assessment as long as it is equitable and fair. New Jersey has moved in the direction of having unfair and inequitable solutions to testing and evaluations.”

He did say that the number of testing days for PARCC would decrease this year and there would probably only one instead of two series. His comment regarding allocation of space for students who opt out may have suggested that opting out will continue to be commonplace in Montclair.

Doris Schapira, member of the board of the League of Women Voters, who introduced Bolandi, asked whether poor children are at a disadvantage with the new PARCC testing due to lack of access to computers. It was acknowledged that such is a possibility, though most districts do have some technology preparedness.

The question arose as to whether passing the PARCC test is a high school requirement for graduation. Bolandi told the group that currently Montclair would have a choice of completing SATs, ACT, or PARCC assessments at their respective passing levels along with a still nondescript portfolio. Discussion arose around the racial disparity suggesting ACT tests are the more fair for minority students, which Bolandi agreed with.

Colleen Martinez, parent in attendance, told TapIntoMontclair that it was her first time at the League of Women Voters' event, “I think in these election years it is very important for us to be informed and share information. When I saw Mr. Bolandi was going to speak about testing and achievement gap I was curious to see who else was going to be here.”

In addition she said she wanted to connect with people who may not have school children but are still concerned with politics and education. Martinez had shared the event on her Montclair Shares Facebook page to garner interest, but fewer than expected attended.

Schapira from the League of Women Voters told TapIntoMontclair about the League’s original mission, “Our main purpose was to educate new women voters on all different issues. We are non-partisan. We used to have presidential debates on television… we still do have local debates.” She told us there were approximately 100 members in the Montclair League. Schapira was a UN observer for the national league, which entailed lobbying government delegates and many other initiatives. She said anyone wanting to get involved could find more information on their website.

The meeting ended as the League of Women Voters presented Mr. Bolandi with a plaque in gratitude for his service to the Montclair community.

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