MAPLEWOOD, NJ - Ronald Taylor said he's not an experimenter.
The South Orange and Maplewood School District's new superintendent said he'll be relying largely on research and data to tackle issues including suspensions and maintaining strong classroom performance within the school district.
As a leader, he also wants input from the teachers and students.
"We have to include our students in decision making,' Taylor said. "They have so much to give."
Taylor comes to the Maplewood and South Orange School District from the Willingboro School District, where he served as superintendent for eight years. But if parents and teachers didn't get to meet him then, they had another chance this past week.
Taylor spoke during a meet and greet event at the library in Columbia High School on Tuesday and fielded questions about a school lunch controversy in the Willingboro district, reports on race and how it plays into behavior at school, homework policies, and technology in the classrooms. Taylor's official first day as superintendent of the Maplewood and South Orange School District is July 8.
The purpose of the event was for parents and teachers to get to know the superintendent and to ask him about strategies he'll be putting in place to improve the school district.
Parent and member of SOMA Justice Kelly Tacola questioned Taylor about a policy in the Willingboro School District that required cafeteria workers to throw away a child's lunch if he or she did not have enough money to pay for it. Tacola asked if the policy will be implemented in the Maplewood and South Orange School District.
Taylor said the Willingboro School District changed the policy.
"The board of education saw an issue where our vendor for our school lunches was backcharging the board because there were so many students who were not filling out their free and reduced lunch applications so they were being given lunches that were then charged back to the school district," he explained.
Once the policy was changed, Taylor said he made sure that students, teachers, parents, cafeteria workers, etc. were alerted when a student's lunch balance dipped below a certain level and make parents more aware of the application process for free and reduced lunches.
Another parent, Rea Beck cited a Pro Publica report called "Mis-education," from October 2018 that talked about school suspensions. According to the report, 75 percent of students who are suspended from Columbia High School are black children when 50 percent of the school population is black.
"It is obviously disturbing to see any patterns of inequities," said Taylor, noting that he serves as a strategist on an equity board for the New Jersey Association of School Administrators.
He said he will look at data such as these findings using a "backwards map" approach, which means the data will be looked at by figuring out what the district's current goals are and looking backwards to see when and where an issue may have started.
"Was there a spike one year? Is this a trend through multiple years?" are some questions Taylor said would be looked into.
Brad Shaker, another parent, asked about the superintendent what his thoughts are on the homework policies. Taylor said it's important to give the students a voice but to also set clear expectations.
"They are going to have to do things that are difficult but they need to build that grit to push through those difficult things," Taylor said.