After three months of discussion and public meetings, the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education approved proposals to reduce academic placement levels in the middle schools and high school and introduce the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme in the middle schools.
The middle school restructuring proposal was the most contentious proposal -- eliciting many comments at meetings and online both for and against. However, that proposal passed by a vote of 7-2 (with Wayne Eastman and Mark Gleason dissenting). The high school restructuring proposal passed by a vote of 8 in favor and one against (Eastman). The IB proposal for the middle schools passed unanimously.
The votes were not a surprise after the Board signaled its support for the proposals at a meeting on Feb. 22.
Board of Education President Beth Daugherty said that the proposals were a major step toward the district's goal of being the "top-performing diverse district in the nation."
Although Board members made extensive comments at the February meeting, they again commented before the vote last night, outlining their reasons. Wayne Eastman reiterated his enthusiastic support for the IB program but said he would prefer to see "levels with choice" in the middle schools and high school where parents and students could make academic placement selections.
Andrea Wren-Hardin took issue with Eastman's comment: "We are also responsible for those whose parents are not engaged," Wren-Hardin said. "Do I support parental engagement? You know that I do. Should it be a criterion that determines if a student gets an excellent education?"
David Giles voiced the middle ground that many parents in the district seemed to fall into. Citing "a lot of anxiety" in emails and feedback that he had received, Giles said, "Some fear we are moving toward mediocrity." Giles felt, conversely that the proposals were "a movement toward improvement for all." However, he added that the Board needed to "assume some responsibility" toward gifted and talented students. "I ask that we as a board take that on -- perhaps this summer as we look at goals."
Daugherty later said she liked Giles' idea. "I agree at the middle schools we do have work to do to challenge our most talented students."
Mark Gleason opposed the middle school restructuring, saying that the proposal was "too much focus on structure, not enough on content." Gleason later gave specifics on what those content improvements could be: more writing across the board, more non-fiction texts, more critical thinking texts and skills development, more global focus in social studies, and more accelerated options for students gifted in science.
Gleason said that he felt that moving forward on the proposals was happening at the expense of pursuing these improvements.
"I support a lot of Mr. Gleason's ideas," said Wren-Hardin. "But we never focus on one thing at a time. There is a whole group of things we are working on."
Daugherty told Gleason she was borrowing a quote of his in this instance: "Don't give up the good to try to obtain the perfect."
Some members of the public voiced their frustration with the process. John Davenport said the process had not provided sufficient public input and that the Board had not been responsive to the feedback it had received. Nancy Gould of the South Orange Board of Trustees said that the proposals would ultimately negatively impact real estate values in the towns, as well as academic excellence.
Conversely, Ruth Lowenkron was disappointed that the district had scaled back the timetable for reducing levels in 8th grade. She also wanted to see IB implemented more quickly.
Marina Budhos expressed her pleasure with the impending adoption of the IB Middle Years Programme. "I'm fairly humbled by this process, having brought the idea of IB to this district." Later she said that the adoption was a great affirmation and she was happy to see how the community had grown to understand and embrace IB.
She also addressed the middle school restructuring, "I want to dispel the idea that those of us critiquing the proposal are not supportive. I urge all of you to not in any way undermine your responsibility to make sure there is a true transformation with true curriculum change."