Candidates tackle equity, teacher support

Five candidates vying for three open seats on the SOMA Board of Education debate the issues

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Though the South Orange-Maplewood School District’s access and equity policy has been in effect for only about one month, the five candidates running for the three open seats on the Board of Education had a lot to say about its implementation during the Hilton Neighborhood Association’s Oct. 20 forum at DeHart Community Center.

Incumbents Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad and Johanna Wright, as well as challengers James Davis III, Anthony Mazzocchi and Susie Adamson, all agreed that the policy was excellent in theory. But they had their own ideas as to how the measure should be carried out going forward, or whether the district is even moving in the right direction.

Lawson-Muhammad said the policy is already having a positive impact on the district — although its implementation plan does not call for a full roll-out until fall 2017. The incumbent pointed out that more minority students are starting to opt into advanced-level courses, while fewer parents are taking their children out of the school system. While she did admit that there likely will be plenty of mistakes putting the policy into action, she stressed that the board needs to see it through by supporting the administration, providing feedback and making adjustments. Just as important, she said that the BOE must make sure that college prep courses are just as effective as higher level ones.

“We must ensure that college prep classes are vibrant (and) rigorous and prepare our students to thrive beyond Columbia,” Lawson-Muhammad said. “So we’ve got to attack this from both angles so that students can have a healthy balance of courses that provide the right level of preparation for the future. That’s what I’ve been advocating for.”

Lawson-Muhammad’s running mate, James Davis III, said the district’s strategic plan — which is expected to be made public in November — will give greater insight into how specifically the access and equity policy can make a difference in closing the achievement gap. Once those actions are known, he said the board can determine whether they are sufficient. But until then, he stressed that change won’t happen overnight, so the board should not impede the strategic planning process by putting its own pace above the administration’s.

Adamson also called for the BOE to take its time enacting the policy so its implementation plan can be fully fleshed out. That way, she said, board members can seek the input of all stakeholders while establishing necessary supports throughout the school system. At every step, she said the board must communicate what is going on so that community members will understand how they are being affected. Then the public will buy into the policy, she said, which will help it become successful.

For Mazzocchi, the success of the policy hinges on creating an action plan specifically related to access and equity. And he believes that the only people who can create such a plan are those with expertise in both academic achievement and child development. If elected, he said he would ask teachers and department supervisors to present a scaffold plan of action with an accountability measure in place. The district’s International Baccalaureate program did not have such a measure when he was still South Orange-Maplewood’s director of fine and performing arts, he pointed out, and it failed accordingly.

Wright’s take on the matter was straightforward: She does not believe students are being provided with access and equity, despite the policy projections. Specifically, she said that many students who signed up for honors and Advanced Placement courses were not put into the classes they chose due to staff shortages that caused a limited number of offerings. The incumbent said she would hire more teachers and support staff in addition to increasing salaries to attract and retain the best educators. She also wants to restore supplemental support programs to provide true access and equity for all students.

Overall, she said the board has to be more honest about where the policy currently stands.

“The access and equity policy in this district is very Jeffersonian,” Wright said. “Jefferson had a great policy too. He said that all men are created equal, but he still owned slaves. We have an access and equity policy that has not been truly implemented.”

Wright also had a lot to say about closing the achievement gap, which in part spurred the creation of the policy. The current board member and former district teacher said she would push for tiered instruction, meaning that struggling students would be taught the basics before advancing to the next level of learning. She said she would also encourage regular education teachers and special education teachers to collaborate more to ensure their students are fully supported.

Adamson agreed that providing academic support is needed to close the achievement gap. She said she would conduct deeper data analysis to identify precisely where and how students are falling behind, then offer additional resources to those in need so they can catch up. She would also call for shoring up supports for at-risk students in addition to developing methods to help students entering the district. And she said that the board must ensure that resources are aligned with need across all schools.

But, as Adamson pointed out, race also plays a factor in the achievement gap. To address this, she said she would call for teachers to receive bias training so that they will understand how to guard against unconscious bias and prevent it from influencing the way they treat students of different backgrounds.

Davis said he has seen minority children and white children treated differently in South Orange-Maplewood’s schools, so he knows that is a factor in the district’s achievement gap. In a community that touts its diversity, he stressed, change is needed.

“To have a high school where people feel like they’re not getting the education they deserve,” Davis said, “is really an indictment on us as a community.”

To fix this, Davis said he will scrutinize the strategic plan upon its release to see what its solutions entail. After that, he said he would question the administration on such matters as its timeline and resources for accomplishing the solutions to ensure they are actually carried out.

His running mate, Lawson-Muhammad, said that the BOE took a step toward closing the gap in passing the access and equity policy, which she described as being “much bigger than it is on its face.” The incumbent explained that Superintendent of Schools John Ramos Sr. is already leveraging it to change the culture of the district, such as when he invited a speaker to talk to teachers about the power of drawing out all students’ potential. Moving forward, she said she would encourage the community to get behind Ramos’ strategy so the district can be part of something great.

Mazzocchi’s solution to the problem of the achievement gap is expanding the district’s arts education, something he previously achieved during his time as the arts director despite facing an economic recession. Upon doing so, he pointed out that standardized test scores improved since students were being allowed to use their creativity and thus enjoyed learning more. And yet, when Mazzocchi left South Orange-Maplewood, he said the school system still cut back on arts programming.

Some programs have since been restored, but Mazzocchi said he would implement a whole lot more for the benefit of the students.

“We have a diverse community — we need a diverse curriculum,” Mazzocchi said. “There’s no study anywhere that shows a diverse curriculum with more arts and creative subjects makes test scores go down. And it’s time for our towns to investigate this.”

Of course, no curriculum will be effective without a good staff to teach it. And during the past several months, the South Orange-Maplewood School District has seen a high turnover rate, so candidates were also asked what they would do to attract and retain teachers and administrators.

To Adamson, the answer lies in first identifying the problem. And she could see one of the district’s biggest issues clearly.

“We are not doing a good enough job of creating an environment where the best people can grow and flourish; where they can take risks, learn, recover and grow,” Adamson said.

And Adamson believes she has the experience necessary to resolve the problem, pointing out that she has received invaluable instruction and experience in her role as a trainer for Keller Williams Realty for recruiting, hiring and developing staff. If elected, she said she would put her knowledge to use to improve the school system’s human resources procedures — such as introducing exit interviews — so the BOE can better understand what issues there are and how they can be corrected.

Mazzocchi also advocated for exit interviews during his time to speak, saying that the candidates would not have to speculate on the causes for the turnover if the district had just asked the departing employees. Aside from that, he said that administrators should return to giving quarterly presentations to the board so that they feel their ideas are being heard. He added that the district must also revamp its hiring practices to make them timelier, calling the current process “incredibly slow and inefficient.” Plus, he said the BOE should support the staff by setting communication protocols and efficiency benchmarks.

Supporting the staff is also vital to Lawson-Muhammad, who said the board has made it clear to Ramos that new administrators need to be provided with mentors and assisted wherever there are weaknesses. The superintendent also must be held accountable for any failings, she said. And the BOE must be careful about hiring the right people, she said, raising the idea that faculty members within the district may be the best candidates for open positions.

Davis said he would not interfere with Ramos’ hiring practices unless they affected students’ well-being, but he would demand answers regarding how teachers are being attracted to the school district and how the practices of good veteran teachers can be passed on to young educators. He said he would also find “innovative” ways of retaining staff — stressing that they could not be financial — while also encouraging parents to let the superintendent know which faculty members they support.

Wright partially addressed the issue during the access and equity question when she said she would increase teachers’ salaries to attract and retain the best educators. Yet she had more solutions, pointing out that the district is losing too many acclaimed and award-winning staff members, who had made their schools special. Specifically, she said she would urge the board to start listening to teachers’ concerns, because right now they feel they are not being heard and students are suffering as a result. Wright said she would additionally call for an HR committee to be established in conjunction with the HR department so that applicants can be thoroughly vetted before being hired.

These five candidates are running for three open seats on the Board of Education. Don’t forget to vote for three of them on Nov. 8.

Photos by Sean Quinn