(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.