SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — As schools navigate remote learning, a departing South Orange–Maplewood School District employee wrote a scathing letter detailing what he perceives as the district’s failures and shortcomings.
“Over the past two years, I have observed a district that has accomplished some important goals but has fallen well short on others. The district has stabilized much of the district administration, passed a bond issue to prevent aging buildings from leaking and collapsing, and has met their required legal obligations. The district has met most if not all of its fiduciary responsibilities,” former interim Columbia High School Head of Guidance Scott White wrote in April at the conclusion of his nearly two-year employment with the district. “Unfortunately, the district has not fulfilled its most important and basic requirement: caring for and protecting the most vulnerable of its citizens. It is actually much stronger than this; let me rephrase this: The district has abandoned the most vulnerable of its children.”
White criticized the school’s handling of discipline, citing different responses for white or affluent children as opposed to disadvantaged or non-white children. He also argued that there is not enough staff to support student health needs.
“We have two inordinately high-risk populations: stressed out kids who are falling apart and kids who are failing due to being simply abandoned,” he wrote. “We were described this way by the regional director of Effective School Solutions: ‘Of the 45-plus schools over three states, including some therapeutic schools, yours is the sickest.’ We have more and more kids who are depressed, self-harming, anxious and suicidal. My job has largely become keeping kids alive, and that is truly alarming.”
In a joint statement sent to the newspaper, Superintendent of Schools Ronald Taylor, the administration and the Board of Education said they are aware of White’s letter and “acknowledge his opinions and recommendations.”
“The Board of Education and administration have demonstrated a commitment to access and equity, not just as an operational policy, but as a guiding principle of our work. Our budget for the 2020–2021 school year is an example of this commitment to our students and community, explicitly budgeting $50,000 towards equity and access with regards to school-based programs and exponential learning opportunities,” the statement read, adding that the district is “exploring the expansion of courtesy busing for CHS families with socioeconomic challenges, as well as the very significant board-approved investment in expanding our secondary schools’ mental health resources — both personnel and programming — for students who are not identified as special needs but need assistance.
“In addition, we have issued close to 900 Chromebooks and partnered with the Achieve Foundation and Parenting Center to procure hot spots for 100 families that have expressed the need for connectivity during our distance-learning methodology — all with the hopes of closing the ‘digital divide’ in the name of equity and access,” the statement continued. “With that being said, we do not profess that our circumstances are perfect, but we are committed to continuing to improve in conjunction with our Growth Mindset tenet.”
According to White, the district is pushing certain students too hard and causing too much stress without providing adequate mental health resources to them. For other students, according to White, the district is “ignoring” them, not adequately addressing truancy and ESL difficulties.
“There is a total lack of vision, oversight and thoughtfulness in what we do,” White wrote, adding that the district does “virtually nothing” for students who are economically and educationally disadvantaged. “They are failing and cutting classes and school at an alarming rate, and we treat it as a behavioral issue rather than a poverty issue.”
White said that school staff is working to help these students but has too few resources, including “no alternate program for kids who do not learn in a traditional manner, no social workers to work with families in crisis or students who have little structure or oversight at home, no deans to catch problems before they become failures and crises, no transportation for kids who need to walk almost 2 miles in subfreezing temperatures, sleet and snow.”
He also expressed concern for students he classified as “strivers who are falling off the treadmill.”
“We had two true suicide attempts that would have resulted in death if they were not found — in a week. We had a sixth-grader kill himself. We have over a dozen students who have not been to school all year because of mental health issues. We send multiple kids out every week for suicidal ideation and mental breakdowns,” he wrote. “This is a mental health crisis and we are really stuck in blaming the victim instead of necessary and purposeful introspection of what we are doing. It is as if our house is burning and we are continually adding more fuel to the fire.”
In his letter, he credited CHS educator Marcia Hicks for her work with SLAM tutoring and the Minority Achievement Committee program but cited his concern for students not participating in these programs.
“These students deserve better,” White wrote. “They need social workers to help with the entire families who have hardships we can barely imagine; they need alternate programs that make them care about learning and their place in the world; they need genuine career training; they need the ability to come to school warm and dry; they need deans who will oversee and improve their nonacademic life; they need a drastic change in curriculum.
White offered several proposals that he feels could begin to address the issues he perceives. His proposals include courtesy busing for students who need it, a social worker who speaks Creole and Spanish, a dean of climate and culture, in-house training for students who do not plan to attend college, the creation of thematic small learning communities, a closed lunch for freshmen, a mentoring program for parents of first-generation students, and a requirement that all supervisors document a minimum of 20 walk-throughs each week.
“We have accepted mediocrity for far too long,” White wrote. “It is time for this board and this community to rethink its priorities and begin a ground-up revision of everything we do.”