SOMA BOE candidates discuss digital divide, diversity

Audrey Rowe moderates the South Orange–Maplewood Board of Education debate on Oct. 8.

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The candidates running for the South Orange–Maplewood Board of Education participated in a virtual debate on Oct. 8 hosted by the South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race, vying for the three open seats on the BOE this November. Kamal Zubieta, who was appointed to the BOE in February, is running unopposed to complete an unexpired term. The candidates running for the other three seats are Susan Bergin, Deborah Engel, Courtney Winkfield, Melanie Finnern and Elissa Malespina. No incumbents are running for reelection; Elizabeth Baker, Robin Baker and Anthony Mazzocchi’s terms expire at the end of the year.

The debate was moderated by CCR Program Director Audrey Rowe. Each candidate made an opening statement and was asked a question. The candidate had 90 seconds to answer, and the other candidates had the option to either answer the question in a minute or pass. 

Zubieta was not able to be at the debate; Rowe read a statement she sent.

“I am inspired by the bravery of students and support them in changing the very nature of the United States,” Zubieta wrote in her statement. “Because of their advocacy for social justice, I am certain that in my lifetime, the American dream will come to include everyone. I’m deeply invested in the South Orange–Maplewood School District. I bring a fresh, multicultural perspective to the conversation. Our district is diverse and the demographics are in flux. Homogeneity does not serve our children well, be it in the overall school mix, class composition, administration, teaching staff or board of education. It is time for our school district to become a leader in civil rights for districts across the state of New Jersey. It is our duty and moral obligation to comply with the Access and Equity policy and other important supporting policies.”

The first question that candidates answered was about technology and the digital divide. Bergin, who last year wrote the proposal for Maplewood’s participatory budget project, which is providing free Wi-Fi in the Seth Boyden neighborhood, answered first.

“I’m pleased to see that people are using this,” she said at the event. “It’s become a great partnership with the school district. We have a long ways to go, but we’ve learned a lot. We have the potential to work towards closing the digital divide.”

Engel said the district has done a good job providing technology to students who have needed it during the COVID-19 pandemic, while classes are still being held virtually.

“I do think we are creating inequity, though,” she said during the debate. “It’s hard to consider kids who are at home and don’t have the support they need. Some kids just can’t learn with asynchronous all the time, and are not able to be on a screen for four, five, six hours at a time.”

In her answer, Finnern said that, especially while students are learning at home, the district needs to do a better job standardizing the curriculum across the district.

“We need to make more options for those who can’t log on during the day,” she said. “How are we going to keep the achievement gap small when they’re not all learning the same thing?”

Malespina agreed, saying that students at different schools don’t always get the same information at the same time.

“They might not get as much library time as they should be getting,” she said. “We have the additional needs right now, but also the curriculum issues that go along with that. I think we need to do more in terms of one-to-one technology.”

Winkfield, who is running with Bergin, highlighted the challenges that special-needs students face concerning technology.

“In a time of crisis, we can see the larger community issues,” she said. “The issue I hope we get a chance to talk about is what’s happening with special-needs students. I think we can do a better job during this time.”

Diversifying the district’s staff was also a topic of conversation at the debate. The staff is largely white, and candidates pointed out that having teachers of other races and backgrounds will benefit all students.

“I know this is not a unique problem to our district,” Engel said. “There is just not a lot of diversity, especially at the elementary schools. I do think we need to look at how and where we are recruiting. One idea is to bring our paraprofessionals back in-house, because I see how they work with our students. I think they could grow into great teachers.”

Finnern said she could think of only one teacher at Clinton Elementary School who is not white. She is a proponent of changing the teacher evaluation system to bring more diverse candidates to the district.

“Our greatest asset is our diversity, but it is also our greatest weakness,” Finnern said. “I think we should be looking at who our teachers are. We should be bringing in more diverse staff to fill in those gaps.”

Malespina, who is the librarian at Verona High School and has taught in South Orange–Maplewood in the past, described a program she participated in while teaching in another district.

“They had a program that recruited teachers from within,” she said. “Kids would shadow a teacher and be mentored, and when they came back to fill out an application, they would check off that they were part of this program. We had to interview them. We should promote from within. What is better than having students become teachers? They know the schools and they know the community.”

Winkfield talked about hiring practices and addressing the inherent bias that exists.

“We have to set off to unpack the biases and understand who we selected from an interview, who we put in a classroom and how we made that decision,” she said. “We have to not only put systems in place but concrete professional learning plans to make sure those hiring practices exist.”

The district’s elementary integration plan is set to go into effect in the 2021-2022 school year, and Bergin brought it up in her answer.

“This is one of the many things we need to address in making our elementary integration plan work next year,” she said. “I think we need to make sure the demographics of the teachers reflect it as well. Retention is also something we should be looking at.”

The election is Nov. 3.