I read the book “Why We Can’t Wait” by Martin Luther King, several years ago. I haven’t picked it up in a while but, recently I thumbed through it on a Sunday afternoon at home. Not more than five pages in, I found this quote: “There was another factor in the slow pace of progress, a factor of which few are aware and even fewer understand. It is an unadvertised fact that soon after the 1954 decision the Supreme Court retreated from its own position by giving approval to the Pupil Placement Law. This law permitted the states themselves to determine where school children might be placed by virtue of family background, special ability and other subjective criteria”.
As a parent and board member who has always advocated for children and strong educational reform to provide opportunities for all students to excel, this quote reminded me that this issue is not a new one. Nevertheless, almost 60 years later, we are still dealing with such an issue even in a place like Maplewood and South Orange. Our graduation rates (from High School) are in the 90’s, we have strong programs in reading and math and we have a board of education that has established goals “To prepare each and every student, regardless of demographic or socioeconomic background, for postsecondary educational success”. Yet at the middle school, black students in this district are overwhelming represented in lower level classes. In level 2, the ratio of black to white students is 103/6 in language arts and 123/8 in social studies. First, you have to see this as a problem and then you have to determine if anything should be done to address it. Many of us feel disconnected from these numbers because we believe our children are not represented in them. Parents often tell me “well, my kid is doing fine”. However, as long as we allow a system to provide a disservice to any kid, we are only fooling ourselves that we could not one day be in the very hole we have allowed to exist for someone else. The real issue is that students are not achieving their best and it is the responsibility of the school system to identify the barriers to student achievement and remove them. Yes, parental involvement is important to student achievement but school systems must establish programs that provide excellence for all students regardless of parental advocacy.
As this election season matures and Tia, Amy and I attend various coffees, meet parents at the train stations and engage in other roundtable discussions with parents and community members regarding our platform, the issues of student achievement and academic excellence and equity have taken on new meaning. I have spoken with so many parents who say they are committed to excellence and equity and want to see the school district grow stronger while educating all students. However, they support the secondary school transformations with some reluctance. As a matter of fact, I have had some parents say to me, “Jennifer, I feel for those kids in lower level classes in the middle school, but my kids are doing well and I don’t want them to regress”. Regardless of your race or socio-economic class, no parent wants their kids to be sacrificed at the expense of others. I understand the concern, but why do we think that elevating the expectation of excellence will hurt any student? My response to those parents is always the same, first look at the data. The data show that the grades with the least progress in closing the gap between other similar districts (the DFG) and the Maplewood South Orange school district are the 7th and 8th grade in both math and language arts; that’s all kids. The gap between black and white kids is even larger (above 35% points from grade 5 through grade 7, by 8th grade the percentage points difference is almost 20%). We need to increase the level of achievement for all students in these grades. Has anyone ever considered that the reason why the 7th and 8th grade test scores are not as good as the leveled up 6th grade is because low level classes exist for some students? I believe the middle school transformation proposal addresses this issue. The proposal addresses the need to level up all students in 7th and 8th grade using the 6th grade reorganization (leveled-up classes) as a model. The 6th grade was leveled up in 2004 (excluding math) and has continued to demonstrate improvement in NJASK scores and increased the numbers of students recommended for more rigorous classes. The 6th grade data is the most impressive with NJASK scores increasing each year and the smallest gap with the DFG in 4 years.
The initiatives of the past 8 years (6 of them while I was on the board) have begun to show positive results. Those programs include:
- the step up programs at the high school,
- leveled up classes in the 6 -7th grades,
- full day kindergarten,
- revised ELA curriculum,
- CHS credit bearing summer academy classes in honors Geometry and Algebra 2
- 25% more class time in core subjects at the middle schools.
These initiatives have led to improved NJASK scores from 3-6th grade with the smallest district-DFG gap seen in years in proficient and advanced proficient scores, increasing college going rates among Columbia HS graduates, and increasing HSPA scores. Recent initiatives such as, the summer reading program for 6th and 7th grade, 8th grade step-up summer essay writing program at CHS, common assessments for most core subjects, Singapore Math for K-5, SAT challenge questions in 6th grade math, new Intro to Calculus course and revision of the precalculus honors course to increase student retention, will further impact student achievement and prepare more students for academic success in our district.
We are moving in the right direction in this district and can continue to watch our children excel as long as we do not become afraid of what can happen when we demand excellence and equity in our schools. When done effectively, all students benefit. Vote for Jennifer Payne-Parrish, Tia (Karen) Swanson and Amy Higer on April 17th from 2-9 pm.