MORRISTOWN, NJ - The national spotlight was on the Morris School District last week, when Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast joined nine other public school leaders from across the United States at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. for the Equity and Excellence: Innovation in American Public Education showcase. The showcase was organized by Digital Promise, a nonprofit dedicated to improving educational opportunities and outcomes through innovative practices and technologies. Superintendents and other public school administrators, education policy makers and thought leaders, and representatives from the press attended the event to learn how successful school districts are addressing the equity gap and positively impacting the lives of marginalized students.

The Morris School District was one of two NJ districts selected by Digital Promise to participate in the Equity and Excellence showcase; Freehold Regional High School District (FRHSD) Superintendent Dr. Charles Sampson also demonstrated his district’s equity work alongside Mr. Pendergrast.  Both the MSD and FRHSD are members of the League of Innovative Schools, a national network of forward-thinking education leaders, entrepreneurs, and researchers within Digital Promise.

As one of the nine presenters at the showcase, Mr. Pendergrast highlighted the Morris School District’s multi-strategy approach to closing achievement gaps in reading and writing at Frelinghuysen Middle School.  Explained Pendergrast, “Four years ago, state standardized test scores revealed marked disparities in student performance among our demographic subgroups, with students of color, economically-disadvantaged students, and students with IEPs performing lower than white and non-economically disadvantaged students.  At the same time, discipline data showed disproportionately higher numbers of behavioral referrals, detentions, and suspensions for African-American and Hispanic students. Principal Joe Uglialoro and I determined that, in order to create impactful, lasting change at the middle school in terms of equity, access, and achievement, we needed to take the broad view and confront both the reading and writing gap as well as the climate gap.”  A study just published by the American Educational Research Association (AERA) validates their approach; Stanford University Professor Francis Pearman and colleagues have now documented the relationship between racial disparities in school discipline rates and academic achievement between black and white students nationwide. (See Pearman et. al. “Are Achievement Gaps Related to Discipline Gaps? Evidence From National Data.”)

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Mr. Pendergrast’s demonstration at the Equity and Excellence showcase outlined what he and Mr. Uglialoro call “The Architecture of a Coherent Vision for Learning”--the integration of a comprehensive set of strategies along three fronts:  the transformation of student culture and climate, emphasizing the centrality of positive, affirming human relationships; the elevation of reading and writing instruction, including the move from an every-other-day schedule to a daily schedule of English Language Arts classes; and the universalization of “blended” learning, which couples technology-based and face-to-face instruction, so that all students can have equal access to the skills and resources necessary for the 21st century.

The longitudinal data Mr. Pendergrast shared at the showcase illustrates the far-reaching impact of the Morris School District’s approach.  “Our results are proof of concept,” he stated. A four-year comparative summary of test scores from the NJ State standardized test in English Language Arts shows significant improvement across the board for all demographic subgroups (see chart below).  For example, economically disadvantaged students receiving a passing score improved by 44 percentage points (from 18% in 2014-15 to 62% in 2018-19). African American students improved by 35 percentage points (from 30% to 65%), and Hispanic students improved by 51 percentage points (from 17% to 68%).  Over the same time period, discipline rates declined at the middle school: behavioral referrals went from 788 in 2014-15 to 112 in 2018-19, suspensions from 175 to 18, and lunch detentions from a high of 1034 down to 34.  


Note: the NJ all-student average for 2018-19 was 62.8%

Pendergrast calls these results “remarkable,” and noted that it was the combination of coordinated strategies that proved so effective: “It is no mistake that while suspensions and behavioral referrals have dropped dramatically, we have simultaneously seen a dramatic rise in student growth and achievement in reading and writing.  All of the strategies we conceptualized and employed were necessary in concert, and it was the comprehensiveness and coherency of our approach that enabled its success. Simply reading and writing more is not enough to create this type of improvement unless it is accompanied by the intentional use of data, careful and targeted integration of technology, sustained professional training and dialogue, investment in student participation and social capital, and a shift in culture and climate so that all students feel that they belong and have value in our schools.” 

Pendergrast added:  “What is more, these strategies were not conceived and implemented incidentally; they are aligned to our district mission and firmly rooted in our values--values that are shared by the community and advanced by our partnerships with our stakeholders.  The Morris School District is part of a legacy of committing to inclusive, accessible education for all students. We are proud of that legacy, and we will continue to work hard toward its realization.”

Both he and Principal Uglialoro gave great credit to the teachers and counselors at Frelinghuysen Middle School for their “uncompromising commitment to providing exceptional instruction, meeting the needs of each student, and inspiring our students to reach new heights.”   



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