SUMMIT, NJ—Differences in approach to the role of emotional and social support to students and the roles played by non-teaching staff members dominated a board workshop session, which chiefly targeted preliminary school body focus area formulation for the next three years.

The Board’s focus areas are reformulated every three years, with input from residents, staff members and supervisors, as well as members of the public. This year’s input sessions took place on March 16 and 31 following a district-wide survey to help develop discussion points for the public meetings.

Board president Celia Colbert said that the following general themes seemed to dominate the public sessions:

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  • The need for Summit’s public schools to work effectively for every child (with much discussion on a greater emphasis on fulfilling the needs of children who are neither gifted and talented, nor special needs children).
  • Schools should foster a love of learning.
  • Students should be equipped by the schools with the skills and knowledge they need to compete and succeed globally.

Colbert added that two challenges that emerged from the sessions were the feeling that the schools should address more fully the needs of specific populations, and that a solid way to measure progress in the above areas should be discussed.

In addition, she said, meeting participants said it was very important to more fully support and value teachers and other staff members

Perhaps the proposed focus area most discussed at the workshop session was the point originally worded to support “raising achievement for all through a consistently strong education at every level to allow each student to reach his or her potential.”

Board members Gloria Ron-Fornes and Katherine Kalin, along with Colbert, felt strongly that the above focus area should include more mention of the need for the schools to help students better fulfill their emotional and social needs in order to be more successful academically.

Ron-Fornes saw the need for the focus areas to address the emotional and social components as necessary pathways to student success.

Kalin added that the social and emotional components should be “called out” specifically because, she felt, social and emotional growth produced well-rounded students.

Board members David Dietze and James Freeman, however, felt those two areas -- if they had a place at all -- more properly belonged among specific board goals and not in the general focus areas.

Freeman said those who responded to the pre-forum surveys, and in the forum sessions he attended, tended to place a major emphasis on academic areas and extracurricular activities rather than support for emotional and social growth.

He also warned against the school district “promising” to deliver emotional and social growth when school staff members were not, in fact, qualified to ensure the achievement of those health goals.

Ron-Fornes and Kalin replied that their proposed focus area language did not “promise” delivery of the health benefits of those two items, but recognized the role of the schools as one of the components in helping students achieve these benefits.

Board members agreed to hone the above focus area more specifically, submit their ideas and formulate a clearer direction before any board vote on the focus areas, which is slated to take place at the regular board meeting on April 23.

The second focus area, as originally formulated, called for support of a culture resulting in a love of learning promoted through an outstanding curriculum and well-supported teachers and staff dedicated to excellence.

Kalin suggested that the focus area, in addition to an outstanding curriculum, also include mention of “inspirational instruction.” She also said that, perhaps, the reference should be a staff dedicated to “strong excellence,” since Summit’s schools already are considered excellent.

Freeman, however, said the original wording of the focus area implied Kalin’s suggestions without the need to specifically mention them.

Ron-Fornes also advocated for a stronger mention of the contributions of guidance counselors in the second point. However, this led to a debate on whether other types of staff members should be directly mentioned. Most of the Board members and administrators felt, however, that it would be more advisable to include references to staff globally, rather than to call out each individual staff level in the focus area. 

The third focus area advocated continued strong financial oversight, operational excellence, and timely investment to continue the superior education provided by Summit schools.

After some discussion on this point, it was tentatively modified, after some debate, at the suggestion of board member Debra McCann to emphasize timely investment brought about through strong financial oversight and operational excellence which, in turn, would result in the continuance of superior education.

Another topic of vigorous discussion was a suggestion by board member Richard Hanley that the focus areas include a need to invest in technology to achieve a digitally delivered education to prepare all students for a 21st Century economy.

While Freeman said use of technology and preparation for a 21st Century economy were implicated in all three focus area, Hanley said perhaps the district should emphasize a more aggressive approach to the use of technology than had been done in the past.

Assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction Julie Glazer, while agreeing with the need for the global application of education, said the concept of 21st Century learning had been mentioned in previous focus area and wondered whether it was not, in fact, a part of the Summit schools’ philosophy.

She also said that, perhaps, 21st Century learning should be mentioned as an outcome resulting from an outstanding curriculum.

Superintendent of schools June Chang said advancements in technology probably should be an annual goal, and should be set out in the specific goals rather than the more general focus areas.

As with the other focus areas, Board members decided to submit their suggestions and further refine the areas at the April 23 session.

During public comments on the suggested focus areas, resident Mariam Zahn said mention of social and emotional needs was needed because the district needed to tap the potential of students.

She added that it was a way of recognizing the pressures on children and that “they were not little machines, but human beings.”

Resident Melanie Wilson agreed with Dietze that the suggestion of the word “nurturing” for emotional and social development was more appropriate for pre-schoolers, and suggested the first focus area should emphasize having students reach their full potential “academically, socially and emotionally.”

She also supported calling out guidance counselors in the second focus area because of the particular role they play in the schools.

On another matter, Wilson said that the schools and parents needed to combat more strongly with students the perception that the newly-instituted PARCC state assessment tests “don’t count.”

Glazer said the above perception possibly arose because passing PARCC tests is not currently required for gradation, but Chang said he was seeing that the message got out to students that the PARCC assessments were the same as any other assessments in life, in that they were teaching students how to live in a competitive world.

On another matter, the superintendent said, in response to a common council resolution saying that polling places could not be removed from the schools, he was working with police chief Robert Weck to move voting places to areas of the schools away from instructional areas where students were present.

Zahn, a member of Concerned Parents of Summit, which advocated removal of polling places from the schools, replied that the council passed a “soft” resolution that, in effect, said school officials should handle the situation.

She said council safety chairman Albert Dill told her his committee would continue to pursue other areas for possible relocation of polling places.

On another matter, Chang said he had met with Summit High School Principal Paul Sears and other administrators to find expanded parking space on school grounds, and other alternatives to deal with student parking in the streets around Kent Place Boulevard.