SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – Several parents attended an in-person board of education meeting on Sept., 23 to inquire about what steps the district is taking to improve race relations among its school community. 

The residents, all mothers of current and former students, took to the podium, seeking additional information about a professional development training resolution on the evening's agenda and to learn more about the district's plan to address the 'lack of diversity' in South Plainfield Schools. 

"You are voting on professional development and training … that seems to be, for administrators, just a book study on self-bias and the training for teachers only on culturally responsive teaching," said resident Simone O'Leary, wondering, also, if the aforementioned item would be the 'only cultural diversity training the district plans to undertake this school year' and what results they expect.

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"This is not a one and done deal for us…It is just the beginning of what we are doing," said Superintendent Dr. Noreen Tansey Lishak, adding that the district is taking this issue 'very seriously.' 

"The goal for us is to better understand what everybody's background is and what we have to do as educators to educate all members of our school community," she said. 

Back in June, following a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement that led to protests throughout the country, residents reached out to school leaders, sending in letters requesting efforts be made to address the 'lack of diversity' and the need for 'inclusivity' for black, indigenous, and people of color within South Plainfield School District. 

In the letters, obtained by TAPinto South Plainfield, the residents urged district leaders to be 'accountable' and address 'challenging' issue of social injustice within the schools. Among the residents' suggestions were a need to overhaul the curriculum and increase efforts of inclusivity, among others. 

Looking to address the issues highlighted by the residents, the district brought in an expert from Inspired Instruction who, over the summer, conducted professional development workshops for administrators with a focus on 'Culturally Responsive Teaching.' The programs, at the district's request, were run by a representative with personal experiences. Members of the South Plainfield Police Department also participated and there was a book on Ijeoma Oluo's bestseller 'So You want to Talk About Race.'  

The goal, said Tansey-Lishak, was to have 'difficult conversations' on 'what it means to be a person of color' and 'what it is like in today's society.' 

Additionally, according to the superintendent, before school virtually opened in September, district teachers also participated in two days of professional development training. 

"The idea is that - starting from administrators, to our teachers, and our students – we need to have a better understanding of what the needs of our students are. To do so we need to have a better understanding of our community," Tansey Lishak said, adding that the district's efforts include more than the professional development workshops held over the summer and those posted on the agenda. 

"This is an ongoing, reflective process," she said. "We will continue to provide the professional development through this year and beyond."

At the high school, Tansey Lishak said, a culture and climate committee comprised of students, teachers and staff currently exists and, most recently, a district-wide committee made up of volunteers, including teachers, students, a borough representative, the county superintendent, and members of the police department, has been formed. Guest speakers, including representatives from the state, are expected to also take part with the committee first working together to come up with an official name, vision, mission, and goals. 

"Everyone is going to bring something to the table," Tansey Lishak said, noting that the high school committee will turnkey its information and work closely with the newly-formed district committee. 

In response to O'Leary's concern about where information about the committee would be posted the superintendent stated the community will be kept up-to-date through information posted on the district's website. Additionally, both O'Leary and resident Christine Smith also questioned why parents were not also asked to join the committee to which the superintendent responded that its representation is specific to its stakeholders. 

"These are the issues affecting those students in the district and we want to make sure we are hearing it from them. It is freedom for our students to speak and our teachers to learn," said Tansey Lishak, adding that the committee will provide the district an opportunity to get a 'good feel for what [it] needs to do,' 'build a vision and mission,' and develop 'goals that are attainable, and realistic and necessary.'

"I get that but I am a little stuck on the exclusion of parents. We are the parents of the students who are going to participate. I understand your decision… well, actually I don't, but that's just a point that I need to reconcile," said Smith. 

Resident Juana Lopez inquired about what additional steps the district would be taking to improve upon its curriculum. According to the superintendent, department supervisors have been working to update offerings to include works and contributions from people of color across the board. 

"We have, for a very long time, been following the state standards, using the same literature over and over again. All of our history is based on the same history we learned in the 70s, the 60s, and the 50s….Yes, we know the famous one, but there are so many others," said the superintendent. "Moving forward, that isn’t going to be the case. We are bringing in works that are written by people of color. We are going to discuss contributions in history and contributions in science by people of color."

"We have historically relied on the standard literature, and standard historical perspective of the main stream," added Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Mary Malyska. "Dr, Lishak and this board have made it [their] mission this year to diversify our curriculum and to diversify our perspective and understanding…"

The question as to why Inspired Instruction was selected to run the professional development training that took place over the summer also raised and Smith expressed that, in her opinion, 'presenters [and] consultants are not long term' solutions. She stated that organizations with 'better credentials to train and engage in long term development to achieve a more diverse and inclusive district' should have been brought in.

"I understand that an organization that employs diverse presenters coming in doesn’t look like a long term partnership in the way you would like to see at this time but, for the first step, this is the step that we chose," responded Malyska, noting that, sometimes, 'the first step isn’t perfect.' 

"We learned some great things from the first round and we will continue to partner with other black, indigenous, people of color organizations that are led by, possibly not employed, to assist us in our further growth," she said. 

Samantha Hunter, a resident and teacher in a neighboring district with a third grader and high schooler, called into the meeting via Zoom, and expressed how, over the past 14 years she has 'never felt comfortable or diverse with the teaching here.' Hunter questioned why the district is 'behind' and why, if the issue to address diversity was first brought up over the summer, a 'better plan' wasn’t put in place for the start of the school year. Additionally, she asked why, as of the meeting date, her children's classes had not yet focused on Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 through Oct. 15). 

Diana Joffe, president of the South Plainfield Education Association and a teacher at the high school, disagreed with Hunter and stated that, for years, social studies colleagues have 'addressed and embraced every culture' and spoken about 'every kind of different ethnicity and the contributions.' 

"Maybe not enough and maybe we can do better. Not maybe, we always can do better, but it is absolutely not true that there has been no attention to this," said Joffe, stating that, each year, the high school holds a multicultural day event. "It's incredible. It's like a different world [with] different foods, different dances. The different cultures are embraced…" she said. "Do we have to work harder, absolutely, but we haven’t been living in the dark ages."

Olivia O'Leary, a member of the Class of 2017, called into the meeting via Zoom and disagreed with the union president's comments, stating they 'invalidate' everything said by those who had the courage to speak at the meeting. 

"As a student of color, cultural and heritage day is great, but one day to recognize the multiple cultures that make up  a student body is not enough," she said, adding that 'it has to be an ongoing process.' 

"I acknowledge that this is what the board of ed is trying to do but no pace is fast enough for these students who are effectively being hurt and are suffering greater consequences in light of teachers who do not see them for who they are," said Olivia O'Leary, adding that 'this is reality' and that 'no issue  should be under played.' 

"We should be uplifting and listening to people of color who have the courage to come to the table because, for far too long, these types of forums, these types of conversations were condemned, they weren’t allowed, they weren’t welcomed," she said, "[I] applaud every person who came up to say what they had to say and appreciate these conversations pushing for diversity and inclusion in South Plainfield."

Tansey Lishak responded, "You hear something and it resonates… all the information and all the conversations we had tonight were fantastic but Ms. O'Leary just said 'no pace is fast enough' and that is what I will continue to think of. 'No pace is fast enough' when someone is struggling."

(Editor's Note: Simone O'Leary, Juana Lopez, and Christine Smith are all members of the recently formed South Plainfield Black Alliance and are scheduled to meet with district officials in the coming week to further discuss these issues.) 

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