MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Public speaks at the May 21 South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education special meeting was full of passionate support for Seth Boyden Principal Damion Frye, who, a week prior had not been reappointed to his post for the 2018-2019 school year.
More than two dozen community members — including many Seth Boyden parents, as well as some faculty and students — begged the BOE and administration to reconsider its decision to let Frye go. Although he has been principal at Seth Boyden for just two years, it appeared at the meeting that he has forged a strong relationship with the school’s community.
The district has stated that it will conduct a widespread search to replace Frye, but has not commented on the reasons he was not reappointed. This decision may stem from a Feb. 3 BOE decision to suspend Frye; according to a News-Record source with knowledge of BOE procedures, this was done while the district investigated allegations that Frye would not allow a teacher time to pump milk for her nursing baby.
BOE President Elizabeth Baker declined to comment on Frye not being reappointed, stating in a May 29 email that she cannot comment on personnel matters. Suzanne Turner, the district’s director of communications, also declined to comment on Frye not being reappointed, stating that she cannot comment on personnel matters.
Turner did, however tell the News-Record that the district is moving along with its search for a new principal and hopes to have one in place for the first day of school in the fall.
“We hope to have a new principal in place for the beginning of the school year,” Turner told the News-Record on May 29. “We would appoint an interim principal if we either have not selected a new principal yet, or if the person selected is not available to start until after school begins.”
While unable to directly discuss personnel matters, interim Superintendent of Schools Thomas Ficarra sent a letter home to the Seth Boyden community earlier this week addressing the disappointment felt by many parents at Frye not being reappointed.
“The members of the Board of Education and I appreciate that so many of you have taken time to share your feedback with us about the leadership of Seth Boyden,” Ficarra wrote. “I know that some of you are incredibly disappointed by our decision and I respect that. While we may not agree on the outcome, I genuinely feel for your frustration and sense of loss. As we all work passionately to help our children to flourish, we will sometimes disagree. I will work hard to communicate better with the community during the search for the next principal, who will build on the many positive aspects of this school.
“I met with six representatives from the Seth Boyden PTA on Friday, May 25, to develop a plan for working together moving forward,” he continued. “The PTA will be surveying the community about what you value most about Seth Boyden, and the characteristics which are your highest priority in a new principal. I will meet with your PTA representatives again the week of June 4, and we will use your feedback to help define the criteria for the selection of a new principal.
“You have my commitment that Seth Boyden will continue to be a creative and supportive learning environment, and will retain its commitment to outdoor learning and a high level of instruction and individual attention for students, as we transition to new leadership,” he concluded.
While some community members became aware that Frye was on the way out after he was not included on the long list of non-tenured staff being reappointed at the May 14 BOE meeting, the rest of the community was informed by Frye in a May 16 letter.
“I am writing to inform you that this will be my last year as principal of the amazing Seth Boyden Demonstration School,” Frye wrote. “Although my heart is heavy, it is full of wonderful memories and experiences which I will cherish, as I look forward to the next phase of my career.”
In his letter, Frye laid out some of the accomplishments at Seth Boyden while he was at the helm, including the creation of an elective period, participation in the “Cardboard Challenge,” in which students use cardboard to create varied displays, the opening of the school’s experiential learning garden and a redesign of the school’s logo.
“With our wonderful faculty, staff and parent community, teachers will remain dedicated to the innovation of education practices, employing the outdoor learning center for project-based experiences and ensuring each child is celebrated both in who they are and how they learn; I am certain Seth Boyden will continue to be a beautiful family,” Frye wrote. “My time here at Seth Boyden will be a source of inspiration, as I continue my passion for building strong school communities, which are creative and help children want to come to school and learn.”
Several Seth Boyden parents spoke at the meeting about how Frye has inspired their children and made them look forward to attending school each day. A few parents in attendance at the meeting also held signs supporting Frye.
“My fourth-grader … he does not want to go to school and Principal Frye instilled all these new programs, audio-video to be one of them, that he personally teaches him and he comes home now every week wanting to go to this class and it just kind of gave him this new hope, you know, and he feels like he fits in better at the school,” Seth Boyden parent Jennifer Jones Grieci said. “And I asked him today, I said I was going to this meeting and I asked him what he wanted me to tell them, and he said, ‘well, you know, he’s really nice and he’s kind and he’s thoughtful and he makes me feel safe at school.’ To me that’s all I needed to hear.”
One student spoke passionately for her principal at the meeting, receiving a standing ovation from the dozens of supporters in the audience.
“Mr. Frye has been a very great and inspiring principal and I think that him leaving Seth Boyden is like him leaving his home, because Mr. Frye has inspired over 50 kids — as I have been speaking to fifth-graders — has inspired them to do more better in academics and everything and in the last courses he has put in and the last effort he put into Seth Boyden has really made me feel better as a person and has made me feel like he should stay and that he’s actually a very great principal,” Seth Boyden fifth-grader Wilmana Bathelemy said at the meeting.
“Mr. Frye has been taking time out of his day basically to make sure that we get the education that we deserve, that we get high grades and that we get good standards of education,” she continued. “So for him to leave like that, it’s like very heartbreaking to me and everybody that really truly cares about him and everything.”
Wilmana also briefly addressed the alleged breast-pumping scandal from earlier this year, saying, “He’s not the only person in this world that makes mistakes and nobody is perfect, even me as I am speaking right now, and I think that Mr. Frye should stay.”
Private lactation consultant Allyson Murphy, a South Orange resident and Seth Boyden parent, also spoke in favor of Frye, telling the board that she had met with Frye in person to discuss the importance of providing space and time for new mothers to pump breast milk.
“Though we don’t know why Mr. Frye was not rehired, there’s obviously speculation among all these people in the room behind me that it’s related to the alleged incident of a teacher not being given time and space to pump,” Murphy said. “While I am obviously a huge advocate of protecting the rights of pumping parents, I’m also a huge advocate of Seth Boyden and this principal, who brought enthusiasm, creativity and spirit to our school. I think many of our parents and the staff would agree that none of us are perfect, that we all make mistakes and that we believe in second chances and that is something that’s important to show to our children.”
Several parents spoke glowingly of Frye’s interactions with their children.
“The summer before my daughter started kindergarten, Mr. Frye visited our home to give my daughter a sense of security about joining the Seth Boyden community,” parent David Massoni said. “There is never a time I speak to Principal Frye that I don’t walk away feeling inspired. When I told my son that, he said that’s how Principal Frye makes all the kids feel: inspired.”
Parent Katie Kaplan recalled seeing Frye teaching an impromptu science lesson to students in the hall, and parent David Miller told the board about how Frye resolved a bullying issue involving his daughter and has inspired and encouraged his daughter and her friends to embrace their love of the arts and history through the musical “Hamilton.”
Parent Katharine Houston-Voss said she was looking to forward to becoming a Seth Boyden parent in the fall as her child enters kindergarten because of Frye.
“Last Monday, my son and I walked to Seth Boyden to meet his new principal. Mr. Frye got on his knee to be at my son’s eye level. He was kind and patient and supportive of my son who is super, super excited for this new step of entering elementary school and was really rambling a lot and he was really very patient,” Houston-Voss said. “The next day I was forwarded Mr. Frye’s letter saying he was not coming back. To say that I am disappointed is an understatement. To find out this wasn’t his decision and the BOE has decided not to renew his contract makes me question this Board of Education that I helped to elect. Why, in the midst of rezoning, better integration for our schools and the search for a new superintendent would you decide to also start a search for a new principal when the position is already filled by a person who is inspiring the children? Mr. Frye deserves your support. He has ours. Tell us why he does not have yours.”
A petition on Change.org asking the district to keep Frye on as principal of Seth Boyden has garnered nearly 500 signatures in just one week.
“We want Principal Frye to stay,” parent Ken Feinleib, who held a “Keep Frye” sign at the meeting, said. “The way you describe what you are looking for in a principal and the sort of school you want — ‘a strong, talented and compassionate educational leader at a warm, collaborative and inspiring learning environment for all students and staff’ — that’s what you have now with him at the helm. We urge you to call off this principal search and to keep Principal Frye. Keep him and support him. Keep him and support Seth Boyden.”