MONTCLAIR, NJ – The Montclair Public Schools hosted an achievement gap sharing forum at Glenfield School on Wednesday. The second of a two-part series, the conversations were designed to allow the community to discuss ways the district could close the achievement gap. The first meeting addressed elementary grades K-5 and Wednesday night’s meeting addressed secondary grades 6-12.
Superintendent Dr. Penny MacCormack issued a letter to parents after the first meeting. She wrote, “The first event was a great success. Thanks to the Montclair Achievement Gap Advisory Panel (AGAP) we had a strong turnout and began an extremely important dialogue. I was deeply moved and learned a great deal by listening to the ideas and experiences of our community.”
Although not as many parents and community members were in attendance for the second meeting as at the first meeting, about 60 came together to share perspectives and ideas.
MacCormack has expressed that she established the Montclair AGAP in effort to narrow the achievement and opportunity gaps within Montclair Public Schools. She said, “While we are not going to fix these issues in one night or one year, we are taking a positive step forward by communicating and listening to each other.”
The meeting opened with remarks by Jonathan Simon, a parent who serves on the AGAP panel. He said, “How do you make the mix work? Bringing people together of all different nationalities is like making a great salad. I think this time we’re getting it right. We are doing things like this to engage the community.”
MacCormack said, “Montclair continues to amaze me in the engagement of its citizens.” She spoke of the need to work together to close the “achievement gap or opportunity gaps.”
Simon added, “There is nothing that eliminates bias in the culture. Where that bias impacts opportunity for children in the town, is something we want to circle.”
AGAP member and lifelong resident Steve Knox said, “We have seen a lot happen in our school system over the years.” He discussed some of his experiences growing up in Montclair and expressed, “…there were schools that were all white and other schools that were all black in Montclair. In the 60’s the Commissioner of Ed. started to get involved and made the district integrate schools. The emotion was unbelievable.”
Knox continued, “The school system is much better… curriculum is broader…. schools are integrated and there are small learning communities.“
He acknowledged, “We have some… longstanding problems… We need to hear from everybody, not just people on the panel. In Montclair, we stand up and address problems.”
After a brief video, a discussion ensued.
The AGAP members served as facilitators and recorded community concerns on chart paper.
Parents expressed that “When it comes to 2nd or 3rd grade, black boys are not called upon or taken seriously. It may not have been done purposely, but it has been done.” Other parent concerns emerged and parents expressed, “…Because they(children) are treated differently and not respected and given the services they need, they are not successful because parents are not aware of their rights to get extra services, such as an aide, tutoring afterschool.”
Melissa Schaffer president of SEPAC, Special Education Parent Advisory Council, was among the parents present who said that she is working with the Montclair NAACP and will be having a summit in December. She said, “Much of this is about education and learning about what services are available.”
Among the parents who spoke, Diane Anglin shared her personal experience in the MPS. Numerous other community leaders were present including Councilor Rich McMahon, Councilor Renee Baskerville, Board of Ed. Member Jessica de Koninck, Board of Ed. Member David Cummings, Martin Schwartz and Sylvia Bryant.
Parent frustrations were elevated when they expressed that they view “black children are not as valued as white children, different disciplinary practices are being used.” Another parent spoke of “separate academic tracks for black and white youths.”
Themes that emerged by the end of the meeting were as follows:
· The knowledge of Special Needs Aides
· How to navigate resources within the MPS
· Lack of Communication/clarity and disorganized program implementation
· Concerns with Child Study Team Case Loads
· Student and parent perceptions such as devaluation of some students by race or ability
· Discipline/suspension disparities
· Racism/Bias and expectations
· Inability to identify institutional racism and personal bias’ and the need for culturally responsive teacher training.
· Understaffed Guidance Department at MHS
· Creating a climate of excellence.
The meeting closed with a brief overvoew of next steps. It was suggested that there could be a special session for high school students, if possible in effort to engage students and teachers. The AGAP members expressed that they will meet and compile feedback from the last 2 sessions and then make recommendations to Dr. MacCormack. At the AGAP reconstitution meeting in January, a new member will be added.