SOMSD town hall meeting draws large crowd

Community gathers to discuss bias and insensitivity in the school system, brainstorm solutions

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Hundreds of South Orange and Maplewood residents made it clear during a March 29 town hall meeting that they want to see changes within the school district to prevent incidents involving race and religion like those seen in recent weeks at the schools, and they want to start by focusing on curriculum.

After breaking into small groups to discuss ideas, several of those gathered in the Columbia High School Cafeteria reported back to the overall group that they believed the content of the curriculum was a root issue in need of fixing. As one community member said, assigning students at South Mountain Elementary School to create slave auction advertisements or wanted posters for runaway slaves as part of a Colonial America project sends the wrong message.

“You can probably better teach atrocities like slavery and the Holocaust without compelling students to adopt the position of the oppressor,” the woman said. “Particularly for the white students — they don’t need to be taught to objectify African-American bodies any more so than society already teaches them to do.”

The district-sponsored town hall meeting was held as an opportunity for residents to devise ways to eliminate the potential for situations like the posters and several other incidents that have recently generated controversy. These included students at Jefferson Elementary School recording an impromptu video of a slave auction in a class overseen by a substitute teacher; South Mountain students drawing swastikas on desks and chanting Adolf Hitler’s name; and at least one person writing racist and violent graffiti in bathrooms in South Orange Middle School, among other incidents throughout the district.

Attendees indeed did come up with a number of possible solutions for improving the curriculum. For one, many stressed that the district should be more transparent about its curriculum so parents will know exactly what their children are being taught. At the same time, they said the curriculum should be uniform across all schools so that every student gets the same type of education. One community member even suggested having a parent advisory board that would review curriculum to ensure consistency and accountability.

Johanna Wright, a Board of Education member and retired district teacher, also pointed out that the curriculum must be sensitive about the way it presents history. Wright said black children could not have felt good seeing people of their own race depicted on slave auction posters hung in school hallways. The district should rethink the perspective it wants to present on the past, she said.

“We have to look at what we’re doing with curriculum and what we’re teaching our children,” Wright said. “There’s so many things that we can teach about slavery in terms of how people overcame in spite of.”

Not everyone took the same stance on the curriculum, though. Khalil Gibran Muhammad — a professor of history, race and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and the husband of BOE member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad — agreed that the district should be more transparent about what is being taught in schools during his special presentation before the group. But he also said that creating a culture in which parents can simply veto a lesson they dislike is probably not the right direction to go. He instead recommended a climate in which parents can respectfully discuss concerns with teachers and, when disagreement occurs, weigh the evidence presented by the teachers whose expertise is being “stewards of your child’s education.”

If a teacher behaves wrongly, Muhammad said he or she should be reprimanded. But at the end of the day, he said educators should not be so rigidly scrutinized.

“We have to let go of the distrust of the people whose job it is to know our past and to help pass that on to future generations,” Muhammad said. “We have to believe that in our classrooms our teachers mean well.”

As for what exactly should be taught, Muhammad suggested following the curriculum produced by the Amistad Commission, a group established by the state in 2002 to rethink the way black history is taught in schools. As the commission recommended, he said students should learn about the brutality of slavery no matter how uncomfortable it makes them. Slaves would want modern-day children to hear about what they went through in order to ensure that such treatment never happens again, he said. And it would also dispel the notion that slaves were immigrants in search of a better life — a false idea which, he pointed out, has been spread by everyone from Ben Carson to President Barack Obama.

At the same time, Muhammad said a connection should be made showing students how the horrors of slavery and the tribulations of Alabama sharecroppers led to positive developments like the creation of jazz music and the fight for civil rights. Oft-recognized figures such as George Washington Carver deserve their place in history, he said, but those who are often overlooked are the ones whom children really need to study.

“In the context of the civil rights movement, we don’t go from George Washington Carver to Martin Luther King Jr.,” Muhammad said. “We have work to do in between, and that is the work of our curriculum. That is the work of our teachers.”

But the curriculum was not the only topic discussed during the town hall meeting. Another idea raised by attendees was that the school district should inform parents about incidents more quickly and in more detail than it has in the past several situations. They said parents cannot talk to their children effectively about issues if they do not know exactly what happened. Likewise, one CHS freshman said students cannot work toward change if information is kept from them.

“Sugarcoating doesn’t help anybody,” the student said. “We want to do better, we want to be better. But we don’t have the tools to yet. We want to do this on our own, but we can’t. We need you to give us the tools to do better. It starts with telling us what’s happening.”

In the same vein, it was suggested that the school district can work closely with parents in developing strategies for discussing controversial subjects with their sons and daughters. One resident said many parents do not know how to talk about sensitive topics or even at what age they should have such conversations with their children. She said providing opportunities for teachers to advise parents will ensure that those dialogues will be held at home and that what is discussed complements what the children hear in their classrooms.

The third issue raised by community members was the “segregation” of South Orange and Maplewood schools. Many people said the district needs to make changes so that children of different races mix together in the schools they attend. Additionally, they stressed that every school building needs to be equitable.

“Address shouldn’t determine the quality of your education,” one resident said.

Even if the schools are “desegregated,” the community members suggested having students become acquainted with students from other buildings by holding districtwide projects and organizing a body of representatives similar to the PTA’s presidents council. Parents themselves should mingle with people different from themselves, they added, suggesting dinners or block parties as ways of fostering such interaction. In general, they said people should simply make an effort to befriend someone of a different race so their sons and daughters can see it is OK to do so.

After all, as it was said throughout the evening, parents need to be models of positive behavior for their children.

Meanwhile, SOMA’s teachers and administrators are working to change their perspective. Khyati Joshi, the anti-bias consultant in her third year of working with the district, said she has conducted anti-bias training for many of the community’s teachers and administrators. As part of this training, Joshi said she teaches about concepts including institutional racism and white privilege so that teachers and administrators can adjust their behavior. Curriculum is a focus of the program as well, she said.

And while some community members might feel that this sort of training should be finished by now, Joshi emphasized that work of this nature cannot be completed overnight.

“It really does take time because people are having to unlearn biases,” Joshi said during her presentation before the group. “We have to find a way for folks to absorb this because you don’t learn when somebody makes you feel stupid. So we have to have patience.”

While that work is being done, district parent Patricia Canning urged those gathered to follow through on what was discussed during the meeting. Canning, who is a member of both the SOMS Home and School Association and the Community Coalition on Race’s schools committee, said parents must work with the administration and local leaders to create the district they want. Considering the “brilliance” of the ideas shared that night as well as the stamina of the attendees for staying so late, she said she is confident the necessary changes will come.

“I am putting my faith in you all,” Canning said during her presentation before the group. “We can do this. We can make this happen.”

Superintendent of Schools John Ramos Sr. said his administration was also serious about preventing further incidents from occurring. To that end, Ramos said the district has made efforts such as revising curriculum, recruiting diverse staff members and implementing the BOE’s recently approved anti-discrimination policies. Still, he acknowledged that more needs to be done. And the district is committed to ensuring that all students benefit from high quality educational services, he said.

“People aren’t just angry — folks are tired of empty promises over the years,” Ramos said after apologizing on behalf of the district for the recent situations and the pain they caused. “The current Board of Education, this administration and staff have been and are willing to face the brutal facts and to embrace the challenges that are before us, understanding that while the underlying issues in this community are broader than just the school district, the district must be a leader in the work.”

The ideas shared during the meeting will help this work, Ramos said, stressing that the district will collect and review all the comments each group wrote down. He said those ideas will also be summarized in an email he will send out that will contain the next steps moving forward. On top of that, the superintendent added that a second town hall meeting will be held May 3 to discuss strategies that can be deployed outside classrooms.

Photos by Sean Quinn