MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Columbia High School’s new principal Frank Sanchez originally planned to become a historian — specifically, an expert in 19th-century American culture and literature. He switched gears toward teaching due in part to the values his parents instilled in him. They had come to New Jersey as refugees from Cuba in the late 1960s and settled in Elmwood Park. They encouraged their children to serve the country that welcomed them decades earlier; Sanchez’s younger sister joined the military, while he fell in love with the idea of engaging students with history. 

“I decided that’s what I really wanted to do,” Sanchez said. “It was a lot more fun than being an academic. My back-up plan quickly became my go-to plan, and I’m very happy with that.”

It was this passion that eventually led Sanchez to become a Humanities supervisor at Springfield Public Schools between 2006 and 2008, where he oversaw the English, social studies, and world language curricula. There, he worked to diversify course content so that it better reflected the students’ backgrounds. He said he looks forward to familiarizing himself with the curriculum at Columbia High School, where he’s already discussed improvements with teachers. 

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More broadly, Sanchez said he’s looking into solutions for the racial disparities at Columbia High School, where students and families have confronted everything from segregated classrooms to discriminatory disciplinary actions. He arrives in the South Orange Maplewood School District (SOMSD) after serving two years as principal at Mountain Lakes High School, a town that’s 79% white. Sanchez acknowledged that the relatively homogeneous demographics within Mountain Lakes and Springfield vary widely from SOMSD — and it’s a change that he’s looking forward to.

“[CHS teachers] talked about how diverse the school is and how exciting that is for them, as well as for students, to see different perspectives,” Sanchez said. “It’s very rare in other public schools.”

He realizes that he’s taking on a new role at a particularly critical moment, as the country simultaneously reckons with systemic racism and fights the COVID-19 pandemic. Sanchez said he’s currently establishing plans to both maintain Columbia’s best features, like thriving student organizations and a vibrant arts scene, while also working to resolve persisting inequities. In general, educators must do better to support their students amid violent acts of police brutality, he said, similar to how they helped students process events like 9/11 and the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.

To achieve these ends, Sanchez said he has already held forums and town halls with teachers and administrators. He will also hold similar meetings with team captains and club advisors.

“Students want to lead, and you don’t want to get in the way of that,” Sanchez said. “I think it’s really important for students to feel that their voices are heard and I’d like to continue that great tradition here at Columbia High School.”

To address Columbia High School’s racial gap in higher-level courses, Sanchez said he aims to tackle the root of the issue: The tracking process that begins in middle school. He plans to spend his first few months as principal working with CHS leadership and the broader district office to build upon the existing Access & Equity Policy, which students say isn’t enough. As a former Advanced Placement course coordinator, Sanchez said he believes that all students deserve the freedom to enroll in these courses. He’ll look into current barriers, like prerequisite courses, that may hold some students back.

SOMSD students have also called for changes to the current disciplinary system, in which Black students are 5.3 times more likely to receive suspensions than their white peers. Sanchez said he’s planning several big “think tank” conversations this summer and hopes to further restorative justice practices at CHS. Restorative justice programs emphasize active conversations between peers, rather than punitive actions toward students. Additionally, Sanchez said he will analyze past data on individual attendance and its effect on grades in order to better serve students in the future.

As for the question on most families’ minds — what will education look like come September — the new principal said CHS must implement “nothing less than a hybrid” plan this fall; according to the state, New Jersey schools must include some form of in-person learning. Though the New Jersey Department of Education can set guidelines for schools, SOMSD has some flexibility in determining what classes and extracurricular activities will look like. District sub-committees composed of teachers and administrators are now looking into areas like athletics to determine what’s best for students. Because the high school’s schedule could differ from those within the middle and elementary schools, faculty throughout the three levels now meet weekly to coordinate fall plans. 

“We want something that is doable for parents, but we all still have liberty because students learn differently at different ages,” Sanchez said. “But we’re still very connected in our research right now.”

As he settles into his position, Sanchez said he’s proud and somewhat intimidated by Columbia High School’s reputation. After working in neighboring districts and regularly hearing about CHS’ achievements, he said he feels “humbled” and eager to contribute to the school’s success.

“I’m listening and supporting the great teachers who want to continue the prestige of Columbia High School,” Sanchez said. “The same thing to students: I want to hear what they love about this place and enhance that, and when they want to see some changes, to support them as well.”

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