MAPLEWOOD, NJ — A few minutes of division broke through the largely polite vibe during the October 17 Candidates Forum for the seven candidates running for three seats on the South Orange Maplewood Board of Education.
The heated exchange happened while answering questions from those assembled at the DeHart Community Center, where the forum was hosted by the Hilton Neighborhood Association. A written question asked the candidates about curriculum: “What’s your knowledge of it and the current state of it in our school district?”
“It’s horrible, straight up,” current BOE member Johanna Wright answered directly. She said currently “we’re making moves in terms of rewriting curriculum at a pace that’s unbelievable,” and that it is important that “we do what we need to do” to keep moving in a positive direction.
Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad, also an incumbent, answered, “I would not want anyone walking out of this room feeling that our curriculum is horrible,” at which point Wright corrected herself to say it “was” horrible. Lawson-Muhammad acknowledged that the curriculum has been “out of date” and praised the current gains, including “a complete turnaround” of South Orange Middle School, where her children have attended, and education around slavery through the work of New Jersey’s Amistad Commission.
But Wright had a different take on that: “We had a curriculum in African American studies in elementary school where we sold children in slavery,” she said, referencing a March 2017 incident at Jefferson Elementary School. “Our kids should mean more to us than that.” She went on to say, “When you sell them, you whip them, you do all those things, what message are we sending? But this was the curriculum that we are talking about.”
“No it wasn’t,” replied candidate Thair Joshua immediately. “That was done by a substitute teacher who allowed children in the classroom to act that out.”
Joshua was correct. As district representative Suzanne Turner told NJ.com at the time, “The activity was not part of the curriculum, not part of the teacher's assignment, not condoned by the teacher, not authorized by the district."
He also disagreed with Wright’s statement that the curriculum called for real or pretend abuse. “Our curriculum allowed people to whip our children? I can’t believe that’s possible.”
Lawson-Muhammad corrected Wright’s assertion that the students of South Mountain School were drawn as runaway slaves in posters. “The actual assignment was on the colonial period. It was an assignment that had been in the school for several years… They had a menu of choices… and one of those choices was they could do a slave poster” because they were creating a newspaper and the only news of the period about Africans would have been about escaped slaves or slave auctions. “Teaching the story of slavery is not an easy story to tell.” She acknowledged that “Ms. Wright is correct that the curriculum for our elementary schools has been modified according to Amistad.” She said it will be “rolled out in trial classrooms this year and then across the district next year.”
Prior to and after that exchange, all seven candidates proffered their commitment to the community.
Joshua, a South Orange resident running with Erin Siders, said they are running on a platform of achievement, inclusion, and community. “It’s a very exciting time for our district,” he said, with a new superintendent and a potential new facilities plan. He said of achievement that he’d like to see more data about the progress of the access and equity policy of allowing any student to take any level classwork, implemented in 2016. “We need to make sure it’s working now, and that the progress hasn’t been stalled.”
Siders, a resident of Maplewood, said her son’s journey through the district as a special needs student “really got me started in volunteering for…our schools.” She said she has some 14 years of advocacy in the district. She said she is committed to asking the district, concerning access and equity, to “identify the students who need that extra push…[and] to encourage those students” to take challenging classes. “In terms of inclusion,” she said, “I support our intentional integration plan.” Integration “helps dismantle barriers to opportunities” presented by socio-economically different school populations, she said. Siders offered the idea of the district hiring a media and communications specialist to provide “clear, concise, timely information” to the parents and public.
Sharon Tanenbaum Kraus of South Orange was also inspired by her child’s special needs journey. “But what keeps me going is that potential that I think our district has.” Serving on the board would allow her to utilize the advocacy skills she has learned as a professional journalist, she said. She said she would bring skills that would impact “consistency, communication, and accountability.” She said "it is important that we hold ourselves accountable" as board members, as much as the board holds the superintendent accountable.
Narda Chisholm Greene said she is running for a second time because, as a former local student, she wants “to get to a point where our district is recognized again as being a fantastic place to not only raise your children but also go through the school system.” She said she is a supporter of the intentional integration plan, “but I do have some concerns… How is it going to impact the students who are most vulnerable?” She also wants to look at the impact of bussing students to different schools. “I want to work together with the other board members on how that’s going to work.” She also valued the multi-age classroom her children were a part of and would like to see that expanded.
Lawson-Muhammad, a South Orange resident, said that her goal for her third term is to make sure that the new superintendent is set up for success. “It’s imperative that Dr. Taylor…gets the support necessary to do these very big, impactful plans” that he was hired to work on, such as the long range facility plan and the intentional integration and innovation plan. “It is a critical time to ensure that we continue with experience on the board and I want to bring that experience.”
Carey P. Smith of South Orange is also a product of the school system. He said he would “like to improve in the school district, improve communication at all levels of the school district…improve school safety, [and] encourage community involvement.” He also spoke about being an active community volunteer, as a member of the South Orange Rescue Squad and president of his college class alumni group. Smith is the liaison to the BOE for the South Orange Middle School HSA, “and was just recently appointed to the State of NJ PTA health and safety committee and family engagement committee... I am connected to and actively entrenched in this community.”
Wright introduced her own experience as “coming from the inside out. I was a teacher in this district for over 35 years and also a coach.” She said she retired to run for the board of ed, where she is finishing her second term. In the past, she said, “We were ranked nationally.” She’d like to get back to that, “So I’m here to finish what we’ve begun.”
When asked if they supported the adoption of LGBTQ history mandate, the candidates were unanimous in voicing strong support. Joshua added that “it has to be a very robust and detailed curriculum,” and Siders noted that the curriculum in question is also for people with disabilities.
The next candidates forum will be at the District’s meeting room Oct. 24 at 7:30 p.m.