Residents come together to discuss bias in the SOMSD

Town hall forum breaks into small, focused sessions

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — At a second town hall meeting on equity and inclusion on May 3, roughly one month after community members stressed that the South Orange-Maplewood School District’s curriculum should be changed to prevent racially insensitive incidents from occurring, the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction informed parents that teachers and administrators are working to ensure a culturally responsive learning environment.

Susan Grierson, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, told a group gathered at Columbia High School that district staff members are committed to looking in the mirror and re-examining their beliefs so they can bring about necessary change. Such work is not easy, Grierson acknowledged. But she said everyone realizes it must happen so the curriculum can grow.

“It’s imperative that we redefine what it means to teach and learn in the South Orange-Maplewood School District,” Grierson said. “It’s a process — it’s not a fix, it’s not something that gets done quickly. But if we have our eyes and ears on the prize and are committed to deeply ensuring that we are putting one foot in front of the other and that we have the correct plan for the structure of how to achieve our goals, I’m sure that we can do that.”

Grierson’s comments came during one of five workshops for community members at the second meeting, held in response to several incidents that rocked the district earlier in the school year. Aside from Grierson’s discussion on the curriculum, parents were given the option to participate in discussions that covered restorative action, anti-bias professional development, community and school demographics, and communications transparency. The dozens of attendees — who numbered far fewer than the hundreds who went to the first town hall meeting — were given enough time to attend two sessions during the course of the evening.

During her workshop, Grierson said the SOMSD needs to better take advantage of tools at its disposal, especially the Amistad Curriculum. The assistant superintendent said the district recognizes that it is not enough simply to provide teachers with a link to the curriculum, which was created by a state-assembled commission in 2002 as a more effective way of teaching slavery. Instead, she said it will now start giving specific lessons to teachers so there will be no room for error.

At the same time, the assistant superintendent said the SOMSD will institute measures that include the revision of the social studies curriculum for grades six through eight and ongoing professional development. It will also combat teachers’ biases through the implementation of an anti-bias checklist that is currently being pursued, she said. Though it is impossible to eliminate people’s unconscious biases completely, Grierson said the district can at least offer tools to prevent them from significantly impacting the classroom.

Just as important, Grierson said the SOMSD will create conditions for success such as identifying and catering to students’ individual academic strengths. It will also continue to purchase texts from a diverse array of authors, she said, because it is important that children see themselves reflected in curriculum. If students can relate to what they are studying, she said, they will feel comfortable enough to question character choices and challenge the power structure. That is exactly the type of risk-taking teachers should encourage, she said.

“We want them to ask those deep questions,” Grierson said. “We want to empower them.”

Of course, Grierson said the district will persist in holding culturally responsive assignments and events such as Maplewood Middle School’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day silent march, LGBTQ Awareness Day and the elementary school Great Migration Project. She said the ongoing “Who Belongs” assemblies that have been led by SOMSD anti-bias consultant Khyati Joshi have taught elementary students the importance of inclusion and empathy.

But for all these positive developments, the community members attending the meeting still had concerns about the controversial assignment for which some South Mountain Elementary School students made slave auction posters. One man in particular said he simply cannot wrap his head around how anyone could have thought that project would have beneficial value. It certainly does not reflect the two towns’ ideals, he said, and he asked how it could have happened.

Superintendent of Schools John Ramos Sr., who was sitting in on the workshop, responded that he had spoken with the teachers involved because he too wanted to know the same thing. Ramos said the teachers told him the assignment was intended to be a “constructivist process of learning” in which students were asked to find primary sources from the Colonial period and then produce an art piece that would have fit in with the era. The teachers had been giving out the project for years without complaint, he said, so they felt comfortable doing it. He also stressed that no student viewed the assignment as a joke — all understood the gravity of slavery.

“It was a serious intellectual exercise,” Ramos said, adding that it cannot continue. “I think we’ve all learned that, in retrospect, when you put the culturally responsive lens on that (assignment), it’s not a good look. And so it has to be corrected.”

Ramos further clarified that the slave auction video some students filmed during a class at Jefferson Elementary School was not part of that assignment. Rather, he said, it was an impromptu situation in which a group of children tricked a substitute teacher into thinking the video was part of the curriculum. They then filmed the auction as a joke, which he said shows they clearly did not understand that what they were doing was wrong.

Another man said he was unsure about Grierson’s curricular vision, questioning whether so much emphasis should be put on students’ cultural knowledge when most are not concerned with the outside world. But Grierson disputed that notion, countering that children at all ages have a tremendous sense of what is going on around them.

“They’re not an empty vessel,” Grierson said. “They have unbelievable experiences, and that’s every child in our district. So what do we want? We want them to have a strong sense of self but also a strong sense of belonging in the world. (We want them to know) that their voice matters.”

The assistant superintendent added that another priority is taking restorative action, which was the subject of another workshop. Keith Hickman, the director of continuing education at the International Institute for Restorative Practices, said issuing suspensions or other punitive measures will only alienate students who behave improperly. On the other hand, Hickman said communicating with people through approaches like informal conversations, group circles and formal conferences allows wrongdoers to take responsibility and resolve conflicts on their own.

But for that to happen, Hickman said, it is important for those in authority at schools always to treat students with respect. That means realizing that people’s actions do not define their character.

“We have to separate the deed from the doer,” Hickman said. “We have to separate the behavior that we want to see changed and begin to understand that there is value in the human being.”

To give someone a fair process, Hickman said teachers and administrators can ask students questions such as “What were you thinking?” and “How can you make this right?” instead of the usual “Why did you do that?” He said young people often do not know why they act a certain way, so asking them is not helpful. In conjunction with that, he said those in authority should provide students with new expectations for them to attempt to meet. They might not be able to meet those standards right away, he said, but one should never give up on them.

After the event, Ramos told the News-Record that curriculum changes, restorative action and the rest of the measures discussed during the workshops are all ways the district is addressing bias and instilling cultural competency. But it is not only way the SOMSD is working toward that end. In a May 8 email, the superintendent said South Orange Village President Sheena Collum and Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca have both pledged their time and resources to making a difference. DeLuca was in attendance at the May 3 town hall meeting.

And Ramos hopes the SOMA community will also support the district as it continues to be proactive.

“This work is the most critical work that we can engage in,” Ramos told the event attendees at the start of the town hall meeting. “If we get this right, frankly, it will create a model worthy of replication across the state, across the country.”

Photos by Sean Quinn