MAPLEWOOD, NJ — After more than two years of deliberation, the South Orange Maplewood Board of Education took the next major step toward its SOMSD Intentional Integration Initiative during a four-hour marathon meeting this Monday. The Board voted unanimously to develop an algorithm that would equitably distribute students among schools, based on weighted factors like income, neighborhood proximity, and parental education level. 

SOMSD aims to integrate kindergarten classes throughout the district beginning in September 2021. The following fall will include the incoming class of kindergarteners, as well as sixth graders. This pacing would advance exponentially each year to include each sequential grade in the elementary and middle schools, said Superintendent Ronald Taylor, depending on the various classroom additions planned for the district. Though integration will proceed “untethered” from construction, Taylor said, the algorithm will take the pace of these renovations into account.

Meanwhile, the BOE also plans to address a pervasive disparity among current and incoming Columbia High School students, as well as schools throughout the country: Racial segregation within courses levels. In 2017, white students composed less than half of Columbia’s enrollment but filled 64 percent of Advanced Placement courses — while Black students filled 22 percent of these classes, according to an analysis by ProPublica. And throughout the district, white students made up more than 80 percent of the Gifted and Talented program.

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“You should have the academic right to push yourself and be rigorous, to have high expectations and try things that you’re not used to,” Taylor said. “Those are the things that are at the heart of some of the equity issues, that all students feel open to challenging themselves.”

The BOE will partially model its integration approach on the method used in the Berkeley, California school district, where a 1968 two-way busing plan brought Black students to predominantly white schools and vice-versa. At the time, this was “the boldest desegregation plan yet devised in a city exceeding 100,000 population,” according to a 1968 study by UC Riverside and the Riverside Unified School District. 

Similar to Berkeley, SOMSD’s algorithm would create “micro-neighborhoods” that group families together by socio-economic variables — like average household income, parent or guardian educational level and the percentage of students of color — and disburse these students equally throughout the district. Berkeley incorporated family choice into their district method in 1994, an aspect that Superintendent Taylor said he’d consider moving forward.

This initiative could nevertheless potentially raise transportation costs, though Board members largely agreed that such trade-offs are necessary to achieve integration. The plan will also eliminate the concept of “neighborhood schools” and therefore reorient the established real estate practice of trying to buy near coveted elementary schools; consequently, more children may need to walk farther or take the bus each day.

“I just wanted to point out that this will require significant sacrifice from families because they may have purchased a home because they wished to go to a particular school,” said BOE Member Kamal Zubieta. “But, I think that it’s time now more than ever for the community to rally behind actually taking action and supporting this type of plan, where they put their ideals to the test.”

Though SOMSD has pursued racial integration since the 1960s, this Initiative was largely motivated by recent efforts from Superintendent Taylor and the SOMA Community Coalition on Race, Board Member Elizabeth Baker said. The district has also recognized the urgent need for updated and expanded facilities, she said. Seeking community input, SOMSD has held four public Integration Initiative events over the past few months, including the packed January symposium that illustrated the schools’ stark racial disparities.

In the future, the Board of Education must decide how to accurately measure the Initiative's progress. This will likely involve a combination of qualitative and quantitative factors, said Board Member Robin Baker, including both demographic statistics and behavioral indicators. Only time will tell if academic research translates into real-life success, she said.

When the algorithm is eventually applied to schools, Member Johanna Wright hopes that the district follows up with close observations and keeps students’ wellbeing in mind. “We’re talking about children and doing what’s right for them,” Wright said.

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