SUMMIT, NJ - Socio-emotional development and a later start time for middle and high school students were the most robust parts of an informal conversation between community members and members of the Summit Board of Education and the administration at a 'Coffee & Conversation' event recently held at Washington Elementary School.  

The event was part of an ongoing Board of Education series that affords community members the opportunity to engage the superintendent of schools, the Board of Education president, and select board members in a less formal environment than found at regular Board of Education meetings.

Washington's Library hosted the first coffee of the 2019-20 school year, with Superintendent June Chang, Board of Education President Vanessa Primack, Board of Ed members Michael Colon and Donna Miller, Director of Special Education Services Doreen Babis, Human Resources Director Rob Gardella, Assistant Director of Education Tanya Lopez, and Washington School Principal Lauren Banker in attendance.

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Topics were conversational, which allowed parents to ask questions of the administrators and get immediate feedback.

Primack gave an overview of some of the District’s recent accomplishments, including the graduation rate moving from 96 to 98 percent.

When the rates are so high to begin with, “it’s hard to move the needle,” she said.

She reviewed the increase in Advanced Placement course offerings at Summit High School, the “revamped” cycle classes at Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School (LCJSMS) such as the forensics class, a restructuring of elementary school math offerings, virtual high school, the addition of more Chromebooks into the schools, and a greater focus on STEAM programs.

Primack said that Summit’s program is more than STEM.  The added “A,” she said is for art.

“Summit has the A,” she said.  “We are emphasizing the art piece in a way a lot of districts aren’t.”

She discussed the District’s focus is on the socio-emotional development of every student.

“It’s important to understand where children are on the developmental spectrum,” she said. “Some children reach their peaks later than others.”

She said that when the District employs people who understand this spectrum, “it’s amazing what they can draw out of the students.”  

“We need to honor where children are on their journey,” she said.

She said that socio-emotional issues are a “huge topic,” not just in Summit, but statewide. 

Some questions were asked about students who are in need of emotional support.

Babis said that the first contact should be with the individual school counselor.  

The next step is the Intervention and Referral Services team (I&RS). There is a long list of reasons that I&RS might get involved, she said, including behavior, academics, bullying, and medical reasons. Babis said that teachers often make recommendations to the I&RS team.  

Students may also get a Section 504 plan, she said. She said that these are usually medically based if a student has a physical or mental  disability that affects them.

“This includes accommodations to support the student,” she said. “Like extra time on tests for ADHD students.”

Finally, she said, there is Special Services, which gets involved when a child is referred for a comprehensive Child Study team evaluation. This team includes the school principal, a learning consultant, counselors and, if necessary, a speech therapist. She said that after the evaluation, it can take up to 90 days to determine if the student is eligible for Special Services.

“The programs are varied and individualized,” Babis said

One parent said that a support group has been formed at LCJSMS for the siblings of special needs students.

Chang said, “If a child feels pressure, that’s what counseling services are there for.”

Primack said that the Board is taking part in learning workshops to better “navigate and cope” with socio-emotional topics.

Primack also discussed how the District uses data to make decisions on programming and learning.

“Data helps us create a District-wide dashboard which allows us to look at the issues more deeply to move the District forward,’ she said.

She discussed experiential learning, which is letting students acquire knowledge and experience outside the traditional classroom setting.   

“Children learn more effectively when they are engaged and interested,” Primack said. The work will become more meaningful for them when they dig deeper and look at the topic through their own lens.”

The community was engaged in a discussion about the “steps skipped” when there is a problem with a student at school. Primack said that it is important to escalate problems through the correct channels available. Rather than beginning with the Board of Education, parents should address teachers, guidance counselors, and building principals.  

“If it’s in the community, then it’s in the schools,” she said.

She said that the problem can be approached by utilizing better listening skills at home.

“There needs to be broader discussions with children at home,” she said.   

She said that Summit is a community that has faced the suicide of a student -- a student who lived in town but attended private school -- and that Summit is “not exempt” from that.

How do you open meaningful dialogue in an age-appropriate way, she asked.  

A parent asked if students who are profiled in the District student features could be recognized for accomplishments beyond sports.

Chang said that the features are “pretty balanced.” He said that there is much emphasis on speech and debate, theatre, and other extracurricular activities.   

“We’ll continue to show the whole spectrum of programs our students are involved with,” he said. “We want to be able to highlight a well-rounded academic experience for kids.”

Miller, who last year chaired the Education Committee, offered her take on sharing the accomplishments of non-athletic achievement.

“We nudge the press to do more well-rounded coverage of us,” she said. She said that the District web site has lots of information on students featured for achievements in the arts and community service.  

The conversation moved to Chatham’s testing of a program that would delay the start time for high school and middle school students. The question is if this option is also being investigated by the Summit schools.

Chang said that they would have to work through a lot of “operational pieces” to implement a similar program. \

He said that he would need to discuss the matter not only with the staff, but with the community. The impact on sports programs, elementary schools, and teachers who have to navigate school for their own children would have to be considered, he said.  

He said that not having to worry about a bus schedule would actually make it an easier transition for Summit than for a community that bussed its students.  

He said, “We don’t know, because we haven’t done a full study on it and what external factors need to be considered.” He said that it would be a “robust conversation.”  

Chang said that he will watch carefully the Chatham experiment.  He said that if it is determined that it will benefit the students, he will recommend it, but that he won’t “just jump on it because it is a hot topic.”

Parent Andrea Stein said that she thought that since Summit does not bus that the late start would be more of a challenge for working parents, who might be unable to drive their children to school at a later time.  

Chang said it’s “like pushing dominos.”  

“No matter what change we make, it’s going to have an impact,” he said.  

He said that it is important to consider whether students may be tired because they are staying up too late playing video games.

“Are kids not sleeping because of tech,” he asked. “Are they going to bed with their phones and staying on them until 1-2 am?”  

“I think there is going to be a lot more to this conversation,” he said. He reiterated that he is not going to “just latch on” to a later start “because it is topical.”

One parent suggested a “Zero” or a “Ninth” period on either side of the regular day that would give students the choice for when they want to attend school.

Primack said that the District is in the middle of negotiating three collective bargaining agreements, and that there is a “huge negotiation and fiscal component to this discussion.” 

Chang said, “There are multiple opinions on what works best.”

Primack concluded the coffee by stating that they deliberately did not discuss homework because it is “a complicated topic.”

She said that parents have “strong feelings” on whether their children are receiving too much or too little.