Candidates discuss achievement gap, collective bargaining

Photo by Amanda Valentovic
Discussing the issues at the Oct. 18 Hilton Neighborhood Association meeting are SOMA Board of Education candidates, from left, Narda Chisholm-Greene, Marian Cutler, Shannon Cuttle, Javier Farfan, Michael Laskowski, Annemarie Maini, Bruno Navarro and Christopher Trzaska.

MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The candidates running for the three open seats on the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education participated in a third debate Oct. 18, in which they discussed the issues the district is facing ahead of Election Day on Nov. 6. The debate, held at DeHart Community Center and hosted by the Hilton Neighborhood Association, featured all eight candidates: incumbent Annemarie Maini, and challengers Narda Chisholm-Greene, Marian Cutler, Shannon Cuttle, Javier Farfan, Michael Laskowski, Bruno Navarro and Christopher Trzaska.

The candidates each had three minutes to introduce themselves at the debate and then fielded questions from the audience. One question centered on the achievement gap that data shows the district is dealing with at all grade levels; the audience member asked if it would be possible for most students at Columbia High School to be taking honors classes in about five years.

Trzaska said that one way to achieve that was to rework the curriculum.

“We have to upgrade the curriculum and strengthen the curriculum,” he said at the event. “I don’t think you look at it from the standpoint of hitting the state’s bare minimum so that we can be compliant.”

He credited the current BOE with beginning to rewrite curriculum and making sure it is compliant, but wants to see more done so that students taking honors classes can do well in them.

“Now I think the next stage is to make that fully current, make it more challenging,” Trzaska said of the curriculum. “While it’s very easy to say we can throw the curriculum out there, we need to empower teachers and empower the district and we need to empower students with the tools that they need to be able to do that.”

Navarro said that, while it can be done, it would take time to have most students at CHS taking honors classes; top reasons he credited for the delay were the incoming new superintendent and the subsequent replacement of the interim administrators.

“I could imagine it but that’s going to depend on the new superintendent,” he said at the debate. “As far as the budget, professional development is absolutely essential. Once you have professional development in place, we can talk about a lot of the issues the district is facing.”

According to Maini, hiring a new superintendent is an important stepping stone to closing that achievement gap and raising the number of students in honors classes at CHS.

“We are going to hire the person who believes that all children can learn at a high level, but also hire someone who believes that giving the classroom teachers the tools and the resources and the motivation to hold high expectations for all students,” she said at the debate, adding that the curriculum needs to culturally responsive. “Every adult in every building must know that their job is to create an environment where kids can feel safe and respected, because that’s the only way they’re going to learn.”

Maini also said that current interim superintendent Thomas Ficarra found money in the budget to support those teachers this year by asking them what they needed. As a result, math and science classes became smaller and the guidance department is in the midst of being restructured.

“I absolutely believe that five to seven years is way too long,” she said. “We need to figure out how to do this. We need to stop talking about the achievement gap as if it’s even acceptable. All of our children can be capable of learning.”

Laskowski said the achievement gap needs to be addressed at an earlier age so that by the time students reach high school they are reading at their grade level and are achieving at the level they should be.

“We have children in this district that are reading a year or two behind their grade level,” he said at the debate. “We’re not helping them by putting them into middle school when they can’t read or perform master skills at their grade level. We’ve got to figure out how to improve it at an earlier age so when the children are getting into middle school and into high school that we can give them a solid platform to be successful.”

He said that progress has to be tracked so that students can have a better chance for success, and agreed that hiring a permanent superintendent is the first step in achieving that. Laskowski wants to make sure that students are not just taking honors classes, but that they are succeeding in them.

“I would love nothing more than to see 90 percent of the kids in honors classes, but I also want them to excel in the honors classes,” he said. “So if we’re going to look at that, let’s look at results, let’s look at scores and let’s put numbers around that. I would love 100 percent of the kids being in honors classes, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to be doing well.”

Agreeing with the other candidates in saying that the new superintendent would be the first piece in closing the achievement gap, Farfan added that a common vision among everyone in the district would help.

“I want to really be driving everybody to really focus on doing it as a community,” he said at the debate. “It’s not just the board’s policy, it’s not just the leadership and the parents, and it’s not just the students. Everybody has to have that common vision in how it’s going to benefit everybody.”

In addition, Farfan said that continuing to improve the curriculum by using gathered data would support students who are undersupported currently and would move the district toward a higher number of students in honors classes.

“We have to be understanding of how to make sure that we’re attacking the problem per student,” he said. “What do they need, what resources and support do they need from the information that we have to get them to that point? I think starting younger is a great point.”

Cuttle said the first step to closing the achievement gap is creating a climate and culture within the district that supports all students, and creates a vision for the district moving forward.

“What is our mission? What is our vision or values as a district, what are we looking for within ourselves and what do we look for in our students?” Cuttle asked at the debate. “That’s going to be guided by leadership. The next superintendent is going to be that guiding force for us as members of the board.”

Cuttle also said that beginning to close the achievement gap has to start at the youngest grade level the district has, in the preschool and kindergarten classes.

“That means you have to make sure from K through 12 that our district — inside and out of our classrooms — in our hallways, our teachers and leadership, represent the diverse population and families that live here,” Cuttle continued. “We have to actively recruit high quality educators and leaders from outside of our district that match our same mission. It also means that we need to invest in support systems for students, but also invest in support systems for all educators and leaders. Teachers cannot be successful in the classroom if they do not have support just as much as students do.”

Cutler said that having 90 percent of students taking honors classes in five years is a lofty goal, because when the students currently in fourth through seventh grade are at CHS in five years, they will not have had the support through the end of elementary school and middle school that they would have needed to achieve at a high level.

“If you look at our current performance scores, the gap says that currently, between 23 and 42 percent of our fourth-graders do not read at grade level,” she said at the debate. “We tackle the achievement gap straight up. We make sure that every single third- and fourth-grader — and keep going up — is reading at grade level. We put the support services in place. We also do make sure that every single person in our community knows that our goal is that 90 percent of all high school students are taking and excelling in those honors courses.”

That goal has to be repeated, Cutler said, to make sure that the community knows about it, and also that the success of those students is being measured.

Chisholm-Greene said the students who are in honors classes need to have a support system in place to ensure that they want to do well in, and stay in, those classes. Right now, she said there are CHS students who are not succeeding in honors and want to move down a level.

“I think about the fact that the child who doesn’t have a support system doesn’t want to stay,” Chisholm-Greene said at the debate. “They want to go down to the next level and that breaks my heart because now I have to go out of my way to get tutoring for my kid.”

She said an effective solution would be for the elementary schools to implement multi-age classes, in which students from multiple grade levels come together in the same class. Chisholm-Greene said that two of her children have benefited from that class structure.

“Those are my two kids that have achieved academic success. I can’t say it’s because of a multi-age class, but I have a strong belief that it’s a critical part of how our schools are at elementary level and how well our kids can do. I think it’s something that we need to speak to our teachers about; I don’t understand why it’s not a part of every elementary school. There’s lots of success with those programs and I think we need to figure out how to invest in doing that.”

The candidates were also asked if they had any experience with collective bargaining agreements and in dealing with the teachers union. None but Cuttle and Laskowski had collective bargaining experience, but some do have negotiating experience and shared thoughts on how to work with South Orange-Maplewood Education Association, the SOMA teachers union, going forward.

“I do have experience negotiating and in collaborating and dealing with contracts just through my professional experience,” Farfan, who works in marketing, said. “I have experience when I was working at Verizon, dealing with unions and figuring out how to make sure that we get to a point in regards to the relationship between management and employees.”

He said the teachers need to feel more supported throughout the year as well as in contract negotiations so that the relationship between SOMA and the BOE can improve.

Cuttle, an educational consultant, has worked as a teacher and a school administrator, and has been in a teachers union before.

“On the flip side of that, I’m also someone who has been involved with working with contract negotiations and at the same time I’ve had a wonderful relationship with the union and helping support them and working with them through the years, everything from talking about safe schools and fostering anti-bullying policies,” Cuttle said. “So I’ve been on the inside and the outside of teachers unions for a long time.”

Cutler does not have collective bargaining experience, but said the relationship SOMEA and the BOE needs to improve.

“Teachers don’t reel respected,” she said. “Our administrators don’t do a whole lot to make them feel respected. Contracts expire and we ask teachers to work in good faith, and that pattern and practice has to stop. That has been in place for the last 15 years that I have been active in this district.”

Chisholm-Greene said that while she does have negotiating experience, she does not have experience with collective bargaining, but did not elaborate.

Laskowski does have collective bargaining experience, and also offered suggestions for how to improve the SOMEA-BOE relationship.

“The existing contract sits in place and we expect the teachers to go about their day and their commitment to the district without having a contract with us,” he said. “It’s a little bit disrespectful. These are the individuals that are spending more time with our kids than we are. We need to partner with the union and we need to make sure that they feel very appreciated and respected, and in turn they need to do the same back to the district. I can tell you, as a recruiter I’d have a real hard time if I was on the other end of this negotiation right now.”

Trzaska said he has experience with contracts but not with collective bargaining.

“One thing to me that is clear is that teachers in this district provide the backbone of everything that we want to do going forward in the district,” Trzaska said. “It’s those guys that are working with our kids and I don’t think we can forget that on this side of the aisle. I do think the contract is something to keep in mind, particularly when it comes to delays and dragging.”

Navarro said that he doesn’t have experience with collective bargaining but his mother was a teacher in New York City for more than 20 years, and he is familiar with the toll that long-term negotiations can take on a teacher.

“I saw the toll that it takes on collective morale,” he said. “I do think that it’s important to respect our teachers and give them the thing that they deserve. We have to make it a more attractive district to hire new teachers and teachers who are innovative.”

Maini said the BOE is in active meetings with SOMEA and is working to repair the relationship between administrators and the BOE.

“Public education has been under assault for many years and our teachers have taken the brunt of that,” she said, mentioning that health care and benefits is one of the costliest aspects of the negotiating process. “That is going to require a partnership with the union and educating our teacher base on how that tradeoff is going to happen. You have to also recognize that, in the past five years, teachers are at risk of losing tenure if they received two ineffective evaluations in one year. So this means that the union has to support the teachers on how to improve their practice. How do you make sure that administration is giving fair evaluations and the evaluation tool reflects what our community is looking for and what our values are?”