Calling the South Orange - Maplewood School District (SOMSD) a "model to the nation," Superintendent Brian Osborne presented a mostly glowing report of the district's progress in his sixth State of the District speech Wednesday night.
"We have a tremendous amount to celebrate," said Osborne, speaking to an audience of roughly 50 Board of Education members, parents, principals and staff. He summarized where the district stands and the challenges that lie ahead.
He began by noting the many accomplishments and awards students have received. He also touted the rise of Columbia High School in New Jersey Monthly's annual high school rankings and the expanded music program, which has doubled in participation levels in the middle schools.
The full report is attached to this article as a PDF.
In Goal 1, Student Learning, the district has made great progress in promoting the intellectual growth of all students, Osborne said. "We have made incremental and substantial improvements on just about every measure," he said.
The Superintendent noted that "the achievement gap has narrowed tremendously" and at the same time, the percentage of students scoring advanced proficient on state tests has grown (particularly among 6th and 7th graders.) In 7th grade math, the district has closed the gap between black and white students and in 6th and 7th grade English Language Arts (ELA) it had exceeded the gap, which he called a "huge accomplishment."
(The data is from the 2011-12 school year).
The district has also narrowed the gap between it and other schools in the same District Factor Group (DFG), which consists of other districts with a similar socioeconomic status.
"We have made believers out of skeptics," said Osborne.
Still, he said there remained large, double-digit gaps in some places between black and white students, which he called unacceptable. "We have not yet gotten there with student achievement," he said, and the district still has "a long way to go."
For example, on the NJ ASK, the gap between black and white students scoring proficient and advanced proficient in English-Language Arts in 2010-11 was 28.1%; in 2011-12 (the most recent data available), it went down to 24.6%.
In Math, that gap narrowed slightly from 29.3% to 28%.
Osborne discussed the district's which will be launched in 6th grade in the 2013-14 school year. The district has been training teachers and staff in the program.
At Columbia High School, there has been a 10% rise in the number of students who matriculate to college within two years of graduation, from 78%-88%, which Osborne attributed in large part to the leadership of Principal Lovie Lilly.
However, the district did not achieve its goal of increasing the percentage of students enrolled in AP courses by 10% and of black students by 20%. (In fact, the percentage of black students enrolled declined from 10% in 2010-11 to 9% in 2011-12).
He noted the steps the district is taking to align itself with the Common Core standards. One parent asked for specifics; Osborne mentioned that there would be a greater emphasis on non-fiction and expository writing, though not to the exclusion of traditional literature.
In response to a parent's question about grading policies, Osborne said the board was having "newly focused discussions" on grading but that it was still too preliminary to discuss in detail. He mentioned that grading should be consistent from class to class.
Osborne also discussed the district's efforts to improve teacher performance evaluations and professional development, part of Goal 2: Professional Staff.
In the area of Engagement and Outreach (Goal 3), Osborne said the district has improved communication through the expanded use of Power School and an increased number of parent-teacher conferences. In addition, Board of Education meetings are now live and streamed.
Resource Management is the district’s fourth goal, and here Osborne struck an almost gloomy note. He called this a challenge for SOMSD as well as other districts. "We have serious, tough choices ahead of us," he said, citing the combined impact of the continued economic recession and the large increase in enrollment -- up by 20% in SOMSD elementary schools in the last six years.
Enrollment at CHS will in turn go up, and in addition the demands on students' education are greater than ever in today's job market, said Osborne.
Still, he said the district would make every effort in its budgeting for the 2013-14 school year to keep the tax impact to not greater than the allowable 2% cap, given the very real tax stress in the community.
A parent asked if budget constraints for the coming school year will impact class sizes. "It's highly likely that class sizes will grow across the board," said Osborne. "I think we are running out of options."