MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Scott Sinkler wants a better school system for the children of Maplewood and South Orange. After a long-term frustrating experience with his child's teacher at Columbia High School, he started a Facebook group for parents last August for parents to get involved. It is now called SOMa Families for Effective Instruction, and has 853 members who relay information to each other about education issues in the South Orange Maplewood School District and coordinate outreach to the district while keeping individual teacher's names out of the discussion.
The South Orange resident emailed a letter to Superintendent Dr. Ronald Taylor and the Board of Education yesterday on behalf of the group, and he had mixed feelings about the response.
"Dr. Taylor has answered every email I’ve sent him over the last 10 months and has met with me twice to talk about the huge inconsistencies in instruction quality from classroom to classroom. He listens, he cares, and he’s making an effort," said Sinkler.
But, he noted, "I just went to the SOMSD Facebook page he highlighted and had to scroll back to May 22 to find the phrase ‘distance learning.’ That was more than a month ago. In the meantime there have been a dozen or so posts on graduation, social justice, and other feel-good topics."
This has left Sinkler to wonder, "How much of the communication from the district is really meaningful in a time of crisis, and how much is essentially PR?"
The following are the full letter and its response:
Hi Dr. Taylor,
I hope you're well.
I wasn’t able to watch the BOE meeting on Monday, but today I was very happy to see—in TAPintoSOMA—three slides from the Distance Learning presentation that was given. Thank you for making that happen.
By transparently presenting the results of your CHS parent/student survey, you’re confirming what many of us feel about the current state of affairs, and indicating that you understand, and that you care. That’s great, and it’s really important to see.
As you know, some school districts, including New York City’s, use surveys regularly. They’re not only a valuable tool in all kinds of ways, but they're a goodwill gesture of engagement with the district's main stakeholders: students, parents, and teachers. Could you do them more regularly and maybe in a little more detail?
One of the slides outlines some of the most critical actions you're taking on Distance Learning in much more detail that we’ve seen over the last three months. To see these in print is reassuring, although there's so many years’ worth of built-up frustration in the community that some people are cynical about what will get accomplished.
My question is: Why did I have to stumble onto this in a Facebook post by a small online news service that I just happen to subscribe to? The credit under the image says that it’s a screenshot from the online BOE meeting stream. Why hasn’t this presentation (which must be more than three slides) been shouted out through every channel at your disposal for communicating with the district community? Did I miss something? Are you reluctant to take credit for the work you’re doing? Or is it just that SOMSD doesn’t communicate well?
As I remember, we hired a Communications Director last year—which not every school district has—because communication has been poor in the district for a very long time. The website has gotten a little better. Your newsletters have a personal touch, which is great. But I have to say that I think most members of the community still see the district and the BOE as a kind of black box. And when things aren’t going well, there's still a lack of outreach and effective communication that could build trust.
The revamped district website, https://www.somsd.k12.nj.us/, has a prominent row of icons which invite you to click for information. That’s great user interface design. Shouldn’t there be an icon that clicks through to up-to-date information about Distance Learning, including how to use the technologies that kids and parents need to understand? Why not tutorials for teachers, for that matter? There are quite a few that seem to be struggling.
Please publish at least the slides from the presentation. It will do a lot of good.
Dr. Taylor's reply to my letter of yesterday:
This year we have initiated many communication platforms that did not previously exist, including multiple active social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook and a YouTube channel), text options for those who opt to receive them, digital newsletters weekly and pages on our website dedicated to the most pressing COVID19 crisis.
We also understand there can be saturation and overkill, so we try to consolidate our District-wide communications on a weekly basis so our community can have an expectation of when information will be received. I am happy to hear the positive feedback on our presentation Monday evening. We will be sharing the multiple presentations from Monday evening in an upcoming newsletter.
Lastly, please know that we wanted to keep this week focused on our students and their virtual culminating activities. Though we do have several promising updates.
Thank you, wishing you and your family well.
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