Expert sees classroom shortfall, lopsided racial makeup

MAPLEWOOD / SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The South Orange-Maplewood School District and Board of Education is considering how it will address issues of increasing enrollment after a commissioned facilities-usage study found that rezoning alone will not prevent a shortfall of classrooms at the elementary school level.

BOE President Elizabeth Baker told the News-Record that the board and administration must develop plans for creating additional classrooms either by expanding existing schools, building a new school or both. Baker said they also need to implement a timeframe for getting that work done, as well as for making improvements to Columbia High School now that its pool is closed and the Middle States accreditation process has been completed. And while this study was only completed in March, the president said the SOMSD will not waste any time in pursuing its recommendations.

“I expect that this work will be a top priority in the coming years and that it will be reflected in the goal setting for next year,” Baker said in a May 29 email. “This work must start now, but it will — and must — continue under the interim superintendent, whom we expect to appoint in early June.”

This urgency to complete the work comes after education consultant Ross Haber found in his study that the district had grown by 420 students between the 2011-12 and 2016-17 school years, with an additional 392 students expected to arrive by the 2021-22 school year. Of that initial five-year increase, 214 students entered the elementary schools. Though Haber predicted that elementary growth will level off over the next five years, he pointed out that it is doing so when the SOMSD’s elementary schools are already at or above capacity. This school year alone saw a shortfall of six classrooms across the district’s six elementary schools, per his report, with shortfalls expected every coming year through 2021 at least.

That means many students zoned for one school will have to be sent to another, while several classes will continue to be held in decades-old portable classrooms that are inconvenient for students.

Haber suggested doing away with the portable classrooms, which he described as being in poor condition. To replace them, he recommended constructing additions to most of the elementary schools in order to eliminate classroom shortfalls. Specifically, he called for an addition of eight classrooms at Seth Boyden, eight at Clinton, four at Marshall, eight at Tuscan and four at Jefferson. From there, he said attendance zones could be adjusted to balance enrollments.

Part of the BOE’s work will be to determine how those recommendations can be accomplished. Baker said the board’s Facilities, Finance and Technology committees will take the lead in working on the infrastructure and finance aspects of the project. She said the Excellence and Equity, Policy and Monitoring committees will also be integral in planning the required programmatic work.

But facilities usage was not the only focus of Haber’s study. The consultant also examined the racial and socioeconomic makeup of each school in the district — and his results showed that most of the buildings are not as mixed as they could be. According to the statistics he presented during the April 24 BOE meeting, Seth Boyden is the only school in which there are more black students at 54.93 percent than white students at 34.61 percent. The rest have a majority of white students, with some even having more whites than all minorities combined. For instance, Tuscan consists of 67.99 percent white students and 32.02 percent minority students.

Seth Boyden, a demonstration school that parents can opt into, also has a higher percentage of economically disadvantaged students than any other school, with 32.06 percent of students falling into this category.

For Superintendent of Schools John Ramos Sr., those numbers were eye-opening.

“The data was very sobering,” Ramos told the News-Record in a May 22 email. “It accentuated the need for us to take the work of desegregation very seriously if we want to uphold the values of the district and the community.”

The SOMSD is already working to make its schools more reflective of the diverse SOMA community, according to Ramos, who recently announced his retirement and will be leaving the district this summer. For one, the superintendent said the district is looking into ideas — such as having buildings dedicated to one grade level and changing its organizational arrangement — that could help it achieve “equity and balance.”

Ramos said it is also pursuing several initiatives in order to recruit a diverse staff, such as holding a diversity job fair in May and having Assistant Superintendent of Administration Kevin Walston visit historically black colleges to discuss job opportunities. At the same time, he said the district is continuing regular practices, including widely posting job opportunities online and advertising in publications like Teachers of Color Magazine and the Career Opportunities for Minority College Graduates directory. It is also a member of and the National Employment Minority Network, two recruitment services.

Meanwhile, Baker said the BOE has participated in ethics training with the New Jersey School Boards Association and QSAC review with Essex County Superintendent of Schools Joseph Zarra to learn about regulatory requirements and how it can ensure schools are running well. She said the board members have also received anti-bias training from district consultant Khyati Joshi and will receive harassment, intimidation and bullying training on June 13.

Haber certainly hopes the SOMSD will continue these efforts. As a former educator himself, the consultant told the News-Record he has seen firsthand how exposing young people to different cultures and backgrounds can benefit them. He said children can develop a deeper understanding as they grow older of how everyone can learn from one another despite coming from different walks of life.

And Haber said he knows the district is committed to making improvements in terms of both facilities and diversity. Though he might have found a few issues in his study, the consultant said he found each school offered top-quality education taught by a caring faculty. Overall, he said the SOMSD is “amazing.”

“It’s one of the best school districts I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with more than 200 over the last 20 years,” Haber said in a May 19 phone interview. “I’m truly impressed with the level of education opportunities that are provided. This is a very, very hardworking group of administrators, from the superintendent to classroom teachers right across the board. It’s a very dedicated school district. I think the district needs to make the (issues it has) match its enthusiasm and its educational opportunities.”

In the next few months, Haber said he will meet with the administration to discuss how he can help the SOMSD achieve that goal. Assuming the district will want to continue working with him, he said he could keep updating projections, present possible resolutions and help plan for the future.