Montclair Board of Education: Homework Policy, Equity and Special Education Discussed

Montclair High School CGI students presented their research on the homework policy. Credits: Megan Spinelli
The board of education discussed homework, equity and special education at the April 12 meeting. Credits: Megan Spinelli
Assistant Supervisor for Equity Dr. Kendra Johnson presented her work on equity in the district. Credits: Megan Spinelli
Assistant Supervisor for Equity Dr. Kendra Johnson presented her work on equity in the district. Credits: Megan Spinelli
Special Education department Interim Supervisor Nicholas Del Re, Supervisor Jennifer Finnerty and Supervisor Rebecca Ross presented the details of the special education department. Credits: Megan Spinelli

MONTCLAIR, NJ - Three key parts of the school district were highlighted at the most recent board of education meeting: homework, equity and special education.

Three presentations took place at the April 12 board of education meeting, generating discussion about much-talked about issues within the school district. First up to the podium was a group of Montclair High School students who researched homework policies as part of their Civics and Government Institute project.

“Homework’s a known factor of stress for many students and it’s hard to manage, especially with other activities that students participate in every day,” student Linez Buxenbaum-Turner said.

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Through the students’ research and a teacher survey, they found that many teachers don’t have professional development training on homework specifically and therefore do not know the best approach to assigning homework.

The students also provided a survey to high school students, asking about their activities, sports and homework and how they handle the workload. According to their survey, many students get much less sleep than the recommended eight hours and feel that the homework they receive is not beneficial to their education.

Superintendent Barbara Pinsak commented on the issue of time management and asked if students need help better managing their workload.

 “Do you think that students might benefit from a little student development and time management or do you think that that’s not the issue?” Pinsak asked the CGI students.

Although Turner agreed that time management is important to learn, she said that is not the main problem with homework.

“I think that would always be beneficial, especially going into the future in life,” Turner responded. “But I think that’s also not the main issue. The students just have so much going on, especially if we want to have a good college application. So we’re all in clubs and sports and we’re doing community service because we want to look good for colleges. So it’s not mainly about time management, it’s that there’s not enough hours in the day with all that we’re doing -- and then the extra hours of homework -- for us to do it all.”

Assistant Superintendent for Equity Dr. Kendra Johnson spoke next about the goals for equity in the district and how the schools need to incorporate equity into the curriculum and instruction.

Johnson has already accomplished some of her curriculum goals, including creating a culturally responsive thinking protocol and creating a culturally responsive module for all curriculum writers. In terms of the district equity plan, Johnson has created a plan to organize a district equity team and created an English as a Second Language class for current parents and guardians, a class that Johnson said has had a great response.

“In September it was brought to my attention by the Charles H. Bullock PTA that we had a gap when it came to our English as a Second Language parents,” Johnson said. “So we created a 10-week program for our parents and they are absolutely loving it, and it’s an option they can work on at home. We need to do more connecting to our families.”

Many goals regarding professional development, Title 1 and AchieveNJ have been accomplished. For professional development, five undoing racism sessions have been provided, an in-person training for cultural sensitivity and responsive practice was created, culturally responsive training has been scheduled for all first year teachers and optional district-wide culturally responsive professional development has been offered. In terms of Title 1, a procedural manual was created and the extended day programs have been aligned with compliance expectations. For AchieveNJ, Johnson has introduced equity connection within the existing teacher evaluation framework.

While many goals have been achieved – and even more are underway – there is still work to be done. In order to do that work, though, Johnson mentioned two things she needs: funding and the technology necessary to keep track of data metrics.

The board had many positive comments about the work that Johnson has been doing in the district, but Councilman Joseph Kavesh questioned whether or not this work would actually make a difference in years to come. Kavesh recalled when former Interim Superintendent Ronald Bolandi had said not much has changed in terms of equity and the achievement gap in the past 20 years.

 “True or false? 2037 – are we still going to be talking about an achievement gap, an opportunity gap, socioeconomic gap?” Kavesh asked.

Although Johnson acknowledged that Kavesh’s concern was valid, she said commitment to the cause is what is going to make all of the difference.

“I would hope not,” Johnson responded to Kavesh. “But the reality is that’s going to depend on how committed we are to doing the work. This is hard work. It’s changing beliefs and practices and holding folks accountable. Can we do it? Absolutely. When I came on board to Montclair I said if it can be done, this is the place it can be done because we believe in kids, we believe in embracing culture and diversity.”

The final presentation of the night was an overview of the district’s special education program. Interim Supervisor Nicholas Del Re, Supervisor Jennifer Finnerty and Supervisor Rebecca Ross took to the podium to present their department’s work.

Included in their slideshow was the total enrollment of special education students at each school, the different classifications and how many students fall under each category, the amount of special education teachers in each school, the different types of programs within special education, a list of the staff involved in a student’s IEP and a summary of the recent parent survey they put out.

The council addressed multiple issues with the special education program, including the amount of staff members in the room during IEP meetings – some parents complain there are too many while some complain there are too few -- as well as the lack of responses to the parent survey that was sent out.

Although Del Re, Finnerty and Ross did not have the answer to the IEP meeting issue at the meeting, they said they were going to discuss ways to find the best solution and find the right balance of staff members. In terms of the parent survey, the department supervisors have plans to send out the survey in a Genesis blast and mail them out with return labels. Councilman Franklin Turner also offered his help in creating a new survey.

Each presentation generated much discussion among the board members, and although changes cannot be made overnight, the board members and presenters agreed that the homework policy, equity and special education all deserve the district’s attention.

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