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SOMS Students End Week With Walk Out

Denial of tenure for popular social studies teacher provides civic lessons outside of classroom.

(Updated 8 p.m with Principal's Message)

Middle school students demonstrated outside their South Orange school on Friday over the denial of tenure for two popular eighth grade social studies teachers.

The civic lessons learned in the classroom resonated among the middle schoolers, who gathered on the front lawn of the school on North Ridgewood Road throughout the day.

“It’s important for students to show their voice,” said one of the students, Anya. “That’s what we’re doing.”

At times chanting slogans in support of teachers Steven Cohen and Kathleen McCort — "Give them tenure, We won't surrender" — up to 100 students gathered in groups, sharing sunscreen, playing guitar, decorating protest posters, with one boy performing back handsprings behind the school’s message board announcing, "School in Action."

“We’re learning about our constitutional rights,” said Hannah, an eighth grader, including freedom of expression and the right to protest peacefully.

Wearing T-shirts on which they had written "Non-Violent Protest" and "Team McCourt" or "Team Cohen," they showed their solidarity with the teachers whose contracts were not renewed. One wore a professionally made T-shirt with Cohen's picture and the word "Believe" under it.

School administrators supervised the gathering and referred questions to the Central Office. The district said it was "sympathetic" to the concerns raised by the community (see the full text of the statement at the end of this story), but could not comment on employment decisions.

"This may seem frustrating to parents and students trying to understand the non-renewal of a particular teacher, but the laws are there to protect the privacy of the employee. The district does not have the right to waive confidentiality," the statement said.

In a message forwarded by the district office, SOMS Principal Joseph Uglialoro said some seventh and eighth grade students chose not to enter school on Friday. "Some of the students returned to class at 12:30. The others remained until the end of the day. Throughout the day, administrators and staff stayed outside with the children and ensured they were safe."

Earlier in the week, Uglialoro, a former history teacher, told the students and parents that he respected their rights, and believed “you are learning a valuable civics lesson that extends beyond any class or textbook,” according to a district statement.  

But some of the students seemed to feel differently. Lexie, an eighth grader and one of the protest organizers, told Patch, "He doesn't care what we say, but we're not going down without a fight."

By Friday night, the principal's message implied that enough was enough. "I value the right of students to express ideas and opinions. However, as board policy requires, their activities cannot 'interfere with the orderly operation of the educational program.' Now that the students have had opportunities to voice their dissent, it is time for them to return to class. They are losing critical instructional time," Uglialoro said.

Assistant Principal James Jennings stayed outside most of the day, making sure the children remained on school grounds. His daughter was among the students protesting.

"I told her, 'If you believe in it, I have no problem with it,'" he said, likening it to other protests for civil rights. "You have to understand there are consequences and be prepared to deal with them."

Most of the students seemed to be fully aware of the consequences (reportedly detention) — one was making a poster that read, "We'll stay Saturday." And Eliana, a 7th grader, added, "I'm learning stuff I would never learn in school out here."

Parents have been supportive of the effort. This morning, one brought a case of water to the students and then went back out to get more.

"They're good kids and I think they really care. They're willing to face the consequences to do what's right," she said, adding that she believes most parents are supportive of their kids efforts to save their teachers' jobs — part of what she likes about the community of South Orange.

"We want them to grow up and care about things and take action, and that's what they're doing," she said.

The outpouring of support on the lawn on a beautiful May day brings to a close a week marked by lessons on civil disobedience as students have staged other protests, including a , with posters, and a large turnout for a school board meeting.

Former students and many parents have spoken publicly and sent letters requesting that the reverse the decision to keep teachers who have clearly connected with their students.

Full Statement from the South Orange-Maplewood School District:

To the SOMSD Community:

We are hearing concerns in the community about the district’s decisions to not renew some staff members for 2012-2013, and questions about why the district is not being more forthcoming with details about these decisions. We are sympathetic to these concerns, and offer this additional information about the process.

Confidentiality

By law, employee matters are completely confidential. While teachers have no legal restrictions on sharing their perspective with others, the district cannot comment on the reasons behind any employment decisions. This may seem frustrating to parents and students trying to understand the non-renewal of a particular teacher, but the laws are there to protect the privacy of the employee. The district does not have the right to waive confidentiality. 

Teacher Tenure

Tenure laws are set by the state of New Jersey. They are not discretionary.  Under the law, teachers automatically receive tenure when they have worked in the same school district for three years and one day. Before they are tenured, they can be dismissed or non-renewed at the discretion of the district. After a teacher has tenure, the bar for removing a teacher is high, requiring substantial proof of ineffectiveness or wrong-doing.

Evaluation Process

Every non-tenured teacher receives formal observations during the school year. Each observation is followed by a post-observation conference where the evaluator and the teacher discuss the strengths of that teacher’s practice and the areas of that practice that need improvement, based on the lesson observed. All teachers also receive a summative evaluation, which is a comprehensive and goal-oriented summary of the teacher’s professional performance for the entire school year.

Renewal Decision Process

The decision to renew a teacher’s contract takes into account observations, summatives, and other aspects of a teacher’s practice. 

Appeals Process

After the Board of Education votes on the reappointments for the coming school year, any teacher who is not on that list receives a letter stating that they will not be reappointed. The teacher can:

  • Request a statement of reasons from the superintendent. 
  • Request a Donaldson hearing before the Board of Education. The Donaldson hearing provides the staff member with an opportunity to plead their case. The Board listens and decides whether or not to take action. If the Board takes no action, the decision stands.
Jameston May 18, 2012 at 04:41 PM
I drove by and saw the kids still protesting - good for them!
MarkDS May 18, 2012 at 06:15 PM
Nice day to take any excuse to cut class.
Nina Kambili May 18, 2012 at 07:33 PM
Mr. U actually TOLD students that he has the power to revoke his choice, but obviously refuses to. Throughout the day, administrators reminded students of consequences, sometimes exaggerating to make the return inside, and it was obvious at some points that protesters were being mocked by teachers and administrators. At one point, a teacher "pointed out" in a very condescending manner that we were less than 10 percent of the school protesting for this. Despite that, about 50 students stayed all day. It was fantastic to see students outside of the 8th grade actually protesting, teachers coming out to support us, and many of the students weren't there to cut class, despite what other commenters say. Our voices might be gone, but our message is still strong!
Nitasha:) May 18, 2012 at 08:06 PM
Wow this is great! I didnt go because i had tests but im glad to know that we can fight together to get our teachers!
Chuck Mahoney May 18, 2012 at 08:07 PM
the students also learned that Mr. Ug and the school board are not concerned with providing a quality education for our students.
Bri May 18, 2012 at 10:22 PM
I'm all for supporting a cause that you feel deeply about. When something is unjust,its your right to speak out on it. But I don't think this is the proper way to go about it. Sure, peacefully protest but also aim to speak to authority, get more adults involved and together strive for your voice to be heard. Screaming in the caf and standing on tables is not an effect way to make your voice be heard if it exist. Which leads me to another point. Protest are only effective if all have the dedication to fight for their cause otherwise it's just a follower's bandwagon. And no cause can be fought without dedication. Many students(mostly 7th grade) today just left to protest because everyone else was.
lee minletch May 18, 2012 at 11:29 PM
im one of the students who tryed to but got caught
Bryce Dixon May 18, 2012 at 11:34 PM
that was a fun protest we should do that again
Sarah Panzer May 18, 2012 at 11:43 PM
Your bravery and strength makes me proud to be a student at SOMS! YOU GUYS ARE AMAZING!
Jayme Addy May 18, 2012 at 11:57 PM
I totally agree with Sarah and If this happens to any of our teachers I know we can look up to you eighth graders as a great example for fighting in what you believe in
Jayme Addy May 18, 2012 at 11:58 PM
I am very proud to be an south orange middle school student!!!!!
Celeste Cox May 19, 2012 at 12:14 AM
And the unnamed teacher who gloatingly pointed out the fact that we were less than 10% of the school needs to look at the other factors: - Instead of pointing out the percentage of the school, look at the percentage of the grade because it doesn't make much sense for 6th or 7th graders to be out there protesting with us. (Although there were some 7th graders whom we were grateful for their support.) - Also earlier that day before she did the head count, there were almost twice as many kids out there. Some came back inside after being scared to by the school officials and threatened with exaggerated punishments. - Some kids tried coming out from inside to help us, but were shooed back into the school. All in all, we have the support of the entire parent/student community, and all the teachers at SOMS as well. They like Ms. McCort and Mr. Cohen and know their amazing teaching skills. If they don't give us reasons because of the "confidentiality", we will not back off! And Mr. U was not handling the situation well. He was clearly overwhelmed and when we wanted answers, he kept repeating himself: "I cannot tell you what are reasons are, but a lot of agony and thought was put into this decision." Then he made up excuses to walk away because he couldn't handle us.
Mya Greene May 19, 2012 at 01:19 AM
Im so happy for u guys MANY six graders went outside but the came back in an some wanted to go but teachers was at every door. SOMS ROCKS!!!!!
Astrid O.R. May 19, 2012 at 01:22 AM
Also, I know what you mean about being mocked by the administrators. Another person of authority was being a little rude when they were talking to some of the kids after school. Their tone of voice was sarcastic and it was just... kind of annoying. I agree with Celeste on all the facts she pointed out, as well.
Sophie May 19, 2012 at 01:57 AM
A group of us were also LAUGHED AT when we tried to talk to an administrator. We attempted to engage him in conversation and after a few minutes, he started laughing at us and walked away.
Icecream May 19, 2012 at 02:10 AM
Now i just think that's wrong! Doesn't anyone else? We try to approach it nicely and look at how the administrators respond!
Sarah Panzer May 19, 2012 at 02:27 PM
Thats horrible!
John Davenport May 19, 2012 at 03:04 PM
Sophie, do you know the name of the administrator who laughed at you? Willing to share? The students of SOMS who walked out on Friday and took long detentions as punishment are very brave. They all deserve our support and praise for standing up to this. The administration has already made changes that threaten to make 8th grade a real mess next year, and refused to offer acceleration options in English, Social studies/history, or Science. Now they have removed two incredible Social studies teachers. What are they going to do for 8th grade? I have been waiting this whole week hoping that the school administration would find some kind of a compromise or accommodation. Time is runnning out. So is the patience of all of us who don't want to see the community further divided by such terrible further harm to 8th grade. Where has the HSA been in all this? Total radio silence. I have asked the chair of the School Board to consider holding an emergency meeting next week to encourage the administration to hurry up and find a solution, a way out of this mess.
Tom Morris May 19, 2012 at 05:32 PM
Administrators will hide behind all sorts of excuses to cover up their mistakes. This principal and superintendent just do not want these teachers but do not have the courage to honestly state their reasons. If parents allow this to happen it is the parents who have failed their own children. The process is flawed and should be changed but time does not stop for students. One good teacher can transform and inspire many young people. Stop asking and start demanding action!! The kids are alright.
Sophie May 21, 2012 at 12:56 AM
He was the head of the science department, I can't recall his name.
Noel Murray May 21, 2012 at 01:50 AM
hey, its for a cause, learn some manners.
Noel Murray May 21, 2012 at 01:56 AM
also the school changed the speech for the press release about the sit in at lunch
MandM May 22, 2012 at 08:48 PM
Mr. U is riding high on the money he saved at SOMs by not renewing tenure. What he didn't mention is that it wiped out the entire 8th grade social studies team. If he cared about the quality of education (and not just the dollars and his own job) then he should have done something earlier to maintain the quality of the team. I understand that money is a big issue, but should we sacrifice quality for dollars? And, if he can't see the talent he has under his own nose, then how can he recognize it anywhere else? He also continues to talk to the 8th graders and quoting district rules regarding the interference of the "orderly operation of the education". Doesn't he realize that he has done just that? What is HIS consequence?
Evangela Faulkner May 23, 2012 at 12:29 AM
wow guys good job we did awesome
Evangela Faulkner May 23, 2012 at 12:29 AM
actually we did it to support our teachers sooo.. yea :)
Evangela Faulkner May 23, 2012 at 12:30 AM
thank you!!
SOMSstudents June 04, 2012 at 11:14 PM
You can watch the video on this event as well as behind the scenes and bloopers videos on my youtube channel. The links are below: http://www.youtube.com/SOMSstudents http://www.twitter.com/SOMSstudents http://www.facebook.com/SOMSstudents Thanks again for the support and enjoy.

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