MONTCLAIR, NJ – A group of about 200 parents and educators gathered during the regular meeting of the Board of Education Monday. Topics that gained reaction from the residents included AP classes at the High School, Code of Ethics and the first reading of Parental Refusal of Standardized Testing. Toward the close of the meeting, what began as a coridal exchange, turned ugly with residents calling out of turn. Order was restored by Board President David Deutsch, however, emotions continued to run high.

Superintendent Dr. Penny MacCormack opened the meeting by praising the efforts of the Girls Soccer Team for winning a state title as well as those of the Football Team who won the NJSIAA title for three consecutive years. She then turned the program over to MHS Assistant Principal Jeff Gannon.

Student-Athlete Recognition

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An acknowledgement of the accomplishments of various athletic groups was conducted during the meeting. Gannon, who also serves as athletic director, recognized athletes and coaches. Gannon praised the academic accomplishments of his athletes as well as their season’s highlights.

“We had six students sign letters to Division I, Division II colleges,” said Gannon. The following teams and coaches were highlighted: Cheerleading, Gymnastics, Cross Country, Field Hockey, Football and Girls Varsity Soccer.

United Nations Club Recognition

MacCormack also took a moment to acknowledge the MHS United Nations Club and highlighted their accomplishments. 

The United Nations Club earned several awards at the Rutgers Model United Nations Conference, Dec. 4 – 7. The team earned the Most Outstanding Delegation award and also won many individual awards, including Best Delegate, Outstanding Delegate, Distinguished Delegate and a Most Improved Delegate. They competed against approximately 1,500 students from about 100 schools from all over the United States and abroad.

AP Program Presentation

A presentation by MHS Guidance Director Willieneil French about the AP course offerings ensued. Guiding concerns of the AP program were discussed as follows:

• Students not taking AP exams

• Performance of students taking AP exams

• Enrollment barriers

• Process, guidance, and opportunity

• Comparisons

French explained that college-level courses are given to a majority of Juniors & Seniors, the curriculum is set by College Board and MHS offers 26 of the 35 courses required. Board members David Cummings, Leslie Larson and Jessica de Koninck inquired respectively about the placement of students who are minorities, as well as the concerns of preparing students while in middle school. The district has planned an information session for AP students and their families on February 19. 

Code of Ethics

A presentation by Attorney Isabel Machado on the Code of Ethics for Board Members was given. She cautioned Board of Ed members of getting too involved in school or political matters. She also advised them on effective confidentiality practices.

First Reading of the District Policy on Parental Refusal of Standardized Testing

One item on the agenda that gained cheers from the crowd was the first reading of the District Policy on Parental Refusal of Standardized Testing.

Many parents, a Hillside student and a team of teachers form Bradford School approached the podium to express their frustrations and anxieties over the proposed PARCC regulations. Hillside 4th grader, Elizabeth Blaine eloquently expressed her frustration over preparation for the assessment saying, “The preparation is for the technology on the test.” Her voiced concerns were met with a rousing applause from the crowd. Blaine's mom later approached the podium, echoing the same sentiment.

Parents and advocates launched a campaign over the past year to push for parents to be able to refuse to allow their children to take the PARCC assessment. In October, advocacy group Montclair Cares About Schools hosted a forum of educators to discuss the matter explicitly. During the October meeting, Bloomfield Board of Education was hailed for having adopted a policy allowing parents to ‘Opt-out’ of standardized testing.

Superintendent Dr. Penny MacCormack read the following statement about PARCC aloud:

I would like to say a few words about the PARCC assessment, the PARCC assessment scores and then how I think we can best prepare our students to feel both calm and confident as they engage with this new assessment.

First - As the superintendent of a public school system I am charged with implementing state mandates including learning standards and assessments. 

In 2010 our state adopted new learning standards – the CCSS - and the new assessments aligned to those standards.  In doing so the state effectively required districts to design curriculum aligned to the new standards to prepare students for college and careers AND the new tests.

Interestingly enough in tonight’s agenda the board will review another state mandate which requires the district prepare a District Performance Review in preparation for the QSAC (Quality Single Accountability Continuum) visit which among other things will require the state review our curriculum for alignment to the new standards.  I believe our community will expect us to continue being rated favorably as a district in high standing – which again - requires we meet multiple state mandates including teaching to standards and implementing state assessments. 

So our district, like many others across the state, is now in the process of planning for the implementation of the new assessment - PARCC, which was very honestly made more challenging by a state decision, early on (2010), to administer the assessment electronically as opposed to a paper and pencil administration. 

While we feel very confident that our students are developing the content knowledge and skills required by the new standards through the quality standards based instruction they are receiving in our classrooms since the test will be administered on-line we must also ensure our students have the necessary technology skills needed to take the assessment on-line. 

We are doing this by: 1) having our technology teachers focus on the technology skills our students need for PARCC many of which are also the technology skills required by the state technology standards, 2) we are ensuring each student taking the PARCC assessment has experience with a practice assessment in ELA and a practice assessment in math and 3) we are making sure our students use computers regularly during normal instruction to both build 21st century learning skills as well as the skills required for PARCC.  I estimate that the time needed for the practice tests will be 1-2 periods and therefore very little time will be taken from regular quality instruction.

The district will also perform an infrastructure trial in each school to ensure we are able to have an entire grade level of computers up and running at one time so an entire grade level of students can take the assessment as required.  This trial will involve one grade level of students and will take between 30-60 minutes. 

All told pure PARCC preparation will take less than four hours for any given student.

As many of you may also know the district recently completed three parent presentations on the PARCC assessment (recognized favorably by the NJDOE) designed to help our parents better understand all aspects of the assessment including the electronic administration of the assessment, the types of questions, and the scoring system.  We also made it very clear in the presentations, which are available on our website, that these first-time base line PARCC scores would not in any way impact student grades, be used for retention decisions, or be used for entry into any district programs.

As we are continuing to get into the weeds of implementation we are challenged to meet some of the state requirements especially when we receive information from the state later than would have been preferred for effective planning purposes. 

We will though, continue to work with our school leaders and teams to have the administration of this assessment go as smoothly as possible - but it is the first time we, our neighboring districts and our state have given this type of an assessment and the first time we will give an assessment electronically therefore there are sure to be bumps in the road. 

I know that doing this, or honestly anything for the first time, and at this scale, can be anxiety provoking. 

I understand and know that while we can not promise absolutely smooth sailing we can ensure our students, parents and staff that we will support them through every bump in the road of implementation and when the results of this assessment are released next September/October they will only serve to inform our work as a district and they will not be used to inform any decisions at the student level. 

I am hopeful this will allow our parents and teachers to soothe any anxiety our children may feel as they engage with and perhaps are challenged by the requirements of these assessments. 

Please assure them that these assessment results are for us, the adults, to learn from and use to inform our quest to continuously improve how we educate them and best serve our community.

Let them also know that this one measure is not all that we use to inform our school system here in Montclair.  Instead we use many measures, to continually inform us about what is great in our school system and where we might still want to do some work. 

Our district will meet this challenge, we will learn from it – good and bad – and we will grow as a district more resilient and more confident as we prepare our students to be successful and dynamic 21st century leaders.

More Public Comment....

MacCormack added, "These first time, baseline PARCC scores will not impact in any way, grades or exit decision, and they will not be used for any entry into any district program.”

Public comment ensued until well after midnight with numerous individuals expressing their concerns.

A group of educators also spoke of their frustrations. Bradford teachers spoke collectively of the assessments their students are subjected to including the DRA (Developmental Reading Assessment), which they stated does not measure writing ability. They expressed that the results have been inaccurately and improperly used.

Michelle Fine approached and expressed outrage that the emails between herself and 28 Montclair residents were under investigation.  She stated that a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request was filed under a fictitious name with Fine’s employer, the City University of New York. She further stated that they were seeking eighteen months of e-mails that took place between herself and numerous local leaders, including Mayor Robert Jackson. Fine added that the people she emailed happen to be black residents and she suspects this request was the result of her inquiry into her challenging of racial comparisons between students on a strategic report, which she stated was filled with errors. Under the federal guidelines, it takes up to one month for a FOIA request to be fulfilled, however, an extension can be granted if more time is needed.

Although Fine expressed that she did not suspect the Board of Education of placing the FOIA request, she alleged that such intimidation tactics are that of 'McCarthyism'.

“I have nothing to hide,” Fine chided.

Fine’s assertions were met with shock from MacCormack and several Board Members who questioned why the FOIA had been requested.

As the meeting came to a close, frustrations ran high between board members and the public. Resident Marcella Simadiris stormed out after an exchange of disagreeing words between her and Larson. She stormed out yelling back at Larson, “Your evil is transparent!”

Lastly, the Board engaged in a debate amongst themselves on the purchase of Google Chrome books which ended in an approval with Cummings and Anne Mernin voted no citing cost concerns and de Koninck abstained.