After months of listening to school administration explain and answer questions about proposed changes to middle school and high school class levels, the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education finally got down to the business of discussing the proposals at Wednesday night's meeting. The board will take official action on the proposals at its regular March 5 meeting.
A proposal to was introduced in December. Then, a proposal to was unveiled in January. Subsequently, three public meetings — for which questions were pre-submitted as well as taken from index cards filled out by audience members — were held in December, January and February. [Read about the meetings , and .]
On Wednesday, the majority of the BOE signaled support for both proposals. Board President Beth Daugherty said that she “personally thinks this is the right time to move forward” with the proposals.
“The intent (of the proposals) is to keep the curriculum at least as rigorous as it currently is and to increase the rigor where necessary, starting in the middle schools where we have heard the most complaints from parents,” said Daugherty. “The task before our teachers is challenging, there is no doubt about that. But I think that through the professional development and the collaboration and the more effective feedback and support from their supervisors and from their principals, they will increase their ability to meet the needs of all of our learners.
The BOE went through a list of concerns that they have heard from the public over the months of deliberation about the proposals. First Vice-President Sandra Karriem agreed that this was “the right time to move forward.”
Karriem said that while she does have some concerns, she believed for the most part that the proposals have “put in place the foundation to make sure that we do this right.”
“I agree that making sure that our curriculum is as rigorous as it can be is key, as well as making sure that our teachers actually are trained to effectively differentiate instruction,” said Karriem. “I believe the administration understands that we have to do that. The other pieces that we have put in place are making sure that our students who have certain challenges are provided with the proper interventions to meet their needs…I believe that we have taken the time to make a thoughtful and informed decision.”
Board Member David Giles said that “the Level 2 and 3 classes have not been preparing students for college” and that “placing students in the lower levels does have a negative impact on students.” He mentioned his approval of the results so far of sixth grade de-leveling and the preliminary results of seventh grade de-leveling.
“Things aren’t perfect now, but I don’t think it makes sense to wait longer to do this,” said Giles. “I think it would do more harm than good to continue to wait. I’m confident that we will continue to improve and that we will be able to meet the needs of the students at the top and bottom.”
Giles specifically voiced approval with the Columbia High School proposal.
“In my view, most of what’s happening in the high school is that we are assuring that everybody is receiving grade level or better instruction and that we are raising standards for everyone in the high school,” said Giles.
Board Member Wayne Eastman said that he has “advocated support towards academic placement that emphasizes choice” and “maximizes options for parents and students in the provision of a substantially de-leveled option.” Eastman said that he hopes the high school proposal is done in a “choice-oriented context.”
“I really do hope and think that we will reflect and come to a consensus that with this wave of proposals in regard to academic placement, we have reached some type of culmination or summit,” said Eastman. “We are ready to, in essence, try an approach toward the high school that to the extent that we are going to be involved in high school issues and that we are not debating two, three or four years from now the extension of IB MYP to the high school associated with substantial de-leveling that is parallel to our middle schools.”
Board Member Dr. Bill Gaudelli said that he “generally supports the proposals,” but had some concerns with thinking of IB — or the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme — as a curriculum.
“[IB] is a curriculum framework or a way of thinking about curriculum,” said Gaudelli. “So the heavy lifting of revision of curriculum in the middle years’ program is yet before us and I know there are plans to do that work and I think that it’s important that we take that very seriously and I think we will.”
Board Member Jennifer Payne-Parrish said that she supported the proposals and that they “raise the standards and continues the discussion that we have had in the community for a long time.” However, Parrish said that she wants to assure that the student evaluation process will stay the same. Also she hopes for some more student involvement in the discussion of de-leveling.
Board Member Lynne Crawford said that the proposals have “been a long time coming.” She credited the middle school principals with taking a “bold and courageous stand in coming up with this proposal.” She classified the proposal as a “difficult one,” but she signaled that she has “always been for de-leveling.
Student Representative Jonah Wolff asked Superintendent Brian Osborne how the changes are being communicated to parents who “don’t necessarily come to board meetings.”
“In terms of communication, we have sent the proposals themselves to every parent in the district, as well as a user friendly two-page summary so that everybody is at least in receipt of that, as well as have the opportunity to e-mail any questions,” said Osborne.
Osborne said that upon action, there will be another series of meetings to help parents and students understand course selections for next year’s schedule. Daugherty brought up that involving the students with the information to take home to their parents “will be the most effective route of communication.”
Board Member Andrea Wren-Hardin said that she “definitely supports the proposal.” She said that it “isn’t perfect,” but it’s the “right direction.”
“It moves us to a philosophy of access, that we can change our ideas of having a gatekeeper philosophy where something is valuable because only a select few are allowed in,” said Wren-Hardin. “No, it's opening up access, it’s creating opportunity for every single student in our district. That does not mean that we have to lower standards, it doesn’t mean that we have to have a curriculum that doesn’t meet the needs for all our students. No, what it means is that we can provide a quality education to every single student and we need to make that adjustment.”
Wren-Hardin also said she is “excited” about IB.
“I’ve been fortunate to speak to some individuals who have a lot of knowledge about the IB program,” said Wren-Hardin. “I want to be clear. I support the IB program as a concept, but I want to be honest as a board member. I don't know what that is going to look like…I’m still expecting to see the specifics and how it’s going to roll out and how it’s going to look in our schools.”
Board Member Mark Gleason said that he wasn’t “completely ready to say how he would vote on March 5,” but he is “utterly convinced that the administration and everybody who has worked on (the proposals) has entirely the right motivation and has put a ton of effort in this.” Gleason mentioned that his kids went through the middle schools and “thrived.” However, he said that the “bar could’ve been a lot higher.”
“The fact that a student is thriving does not in and of itself mean that the bar is high enough for our schools,” said Gleason. “It’s possible to believe both of those things; our students can thrive in the current situation, but that the current situation can also be better.”
Gleason said that he “supports the high school proposal,” feeling that it “strikes the right balance between opening up access, but preserving a high bar and some very challenging classes between the AP level and the honors level.” However, he still had concerns about the middle school proposals.
“We have spent a ton of time discussing and debating…and we have primarily been talking about structure, we’ve been talking about how we group students in classrooms, but we have not been talking about content for the most part,” said Gleason. “I think the answer to closing the achievement gap is 80% or more about content and a lot less about structure. I think we have the balance backwards right now.”
Gleason said that he “likes the direction” of the middle school proposal, he “likes what we are trying to accomplish,” but there is “not enough meat on the bone yet” for him to “be comfortable with the proposal.” Gleason also wants to see the bar raised higher with the curriculum.
“I think high standards are what lead to high achievement, but we seem to be reluctant about having this conversation about raising the top bar,” said Gleason. “Because it’s of lesser importance or that comes later, this whole push back that we need to raise the challenge in the level 4 classes in the middle school, that somehow that detracts from what we’re trying to do in terms of flattening the structure, I just don’t buy that. We can talk about making all of these kids challenged more, they can be.”
The Board of Education will meet again on March 5. It is expected that they will take action on the high school and middle school restructuring proposals at that time. Before any action, there will be open public comments.