by TINA KELLEY
special to Montclair Local
In a basement room of the Renaissance Middle School, a handful of teachers meet regularly to continue the work of the school district’s Undoing Racism workshops. Following a recommendation from a panel studying the achievement gap among races, the district offered the workshops to its entire staff starting in 2015, to promote equity and address the impact of race and institutional racism.
“Being exposed to that information, your eyes are open and your mind expanded,” said Sally Solo, an aide at Hillside Elementary School. “And the only thing to do is take action, so we decided to keep meeting.”
Almost five years after the district’s Achievement Gap Advisory Panel issued its 85-page report and recommendations, much work remains. In part because of continuous changes at the district’s helm, and in part because of a lack of will or wherewithal, progress has been gradual and incomplete. But it continues, and in important ways.
The basement group, Teachers Undoing Racism Now (TURN) runs an annual Black Lives Matter In-School Week of Action, and supports the recruitment and retention of diverse teachers, among other activities. The group has also been tackling a too-common conundrum: What happens when a progressive law or policy is passed, then neglected? TURN is encouraging other teachers to follow the 17-year-old state Amistad law requiring the teaching of African American history in every grade, which has not been widely followed. The group’s members posted signs in every teacher’s lounge, describing ways to participate.
“I think the sign is invisible,” said Rodney Jackson, a social studies teacher at the school and co-founder of the group. “The teachers who are interested are doing what they’re supposed to do.”
It’s far harder, he said, to reach teachers who believe they are without bias.
In a way, that crystallizes the history of working toward educational equity in Montclair, which since the late 1970s has adopted equity rules and reforms that made it the envy of other towns that champion diversity. Such reforms, which experts and evidence favored, included free district-wide pre-kindergarten, reduced greatly by budget cuts; a magnet program that gave families choice and resulted in well-integrated elementary and middle schools; and a level-free global literature class for all high school freshmen, which reportedly has suffered as a result of insufficient teacher training.
But in many instances, funding cuts, inertia, staff turnover, and, some say, the community’s inability to see its own imperfections and prejudices, have kept reform from flourishing. The achievement gap — or more accurately the opportunity gap, a term reflecting the unequal support and privileges some students receive in the course of their education — has persisted.
Recommendations followed and not
First, a look at the numbers. The township is 65 percent white and 25 percent black, according to recent census estimates, while the district’s student population is more diverse with 51 percent white and 25 percent black. Hispanic students account for 12 percent of the district’s population, slightly higher than their representation in town, 9.8 percent. The district is 6 percent Asian, higher than the township’s 3.3 percent. And the poverty rate in the township is 8 percent, while 14 percent of the district’s students are eligible for free or discounted lunches, a common gauge of socioeconomic status.
The panel report found that 90 percent of white third graders were proficient in reading, compared to 60 percent of black students. More than a quarter of black male students were in special education classes, although they accounted for only 16 percent of the school population. Advanced Placement classes were 73 percent white, and black students accounted for nearly 80 percent of high school suspensions.
The district tackled many of the report’s recommendations, but it left many to languish. The report strongly urged the Board of Education to appoint an assistant superintendent for equity, a position filled by Kendra Johnson until she became superintendent in April 2018. After that, it went unfilled, until the board appointed Margaret Hayes to the job last November. (Hayes referred all questions on the opportunity gap to interim superintendent Nathan Parker.)
The achievement gap panel also urged the district to require staff training about equity, unconscious bias and cultural competency, and all staff members — teachers, secretaries, administrators, custodians, etc. — were invited to the Undoing Racism workshops. The majority attended, but of those who did, not all completed it. As of 2016, 250 staff members were trained. In December, Dr. Parker said that everyone on staff had been required to take the training, but requests to the district for a final record of who did or did not attend and complete it were not answered. (Last week, a group of parents called for Dr. Parker’s resignation over comments he allegedly made about racism and district hiring practices.)
Laura Hertzog, who served on the panel, then on the Board of Education for four years, two of them as president, said other completed recommendations included a new tutoring center in the high school, the opportunity for academic staff to have more input into topics in which they would be trained, and algebra course offerings redesigned to help more students reach higher math levels.
Hertzog, who resigned from the board in May over what she called its “toxic culture,” said other panel recommendations remain to be tackled, including increasing the numbers of underrepresented students in Advanced Placement and honors classes; requiring students earning As or Bs in lower classes to have timely meetings about moving up a level; having principals hold town hall meetings around school performance reports; monitoring schools with large gaps among the races on a quarterly basis; communicating to parents or guardians within 48 hours on issues related to student behavior or academic performance; and finding a teacher trainer for differentiated instruction — the teaching of classes that include students with a wide variety of abilities.
To address the opportunity gap effectively, it will take more than these efforts, Hertzog said.
“We need the acceptance of the reality to Montclair is not as inclusive and progressive as we would like it to be,” she said. “And until there’s an acceptance of imperfection, we can’t honestly strive for perfection.”
Interim Superintendent Parker praised the board of education for adopting the 2019-2020 goal of eliminating the gap. In an email, he said his top priorities in addressing the gap included understanding its extent and what caused it.
“Current practices will need to change,” he added. While pre-school education had been eliminated in the district, he noted that high quality pre-K has been shown to be an important intervention.
He noted, as a second step, that staff had a half-day of professional development in the Marshall Rubric, a way of improving instruction via a more positive way of evaluating teacher performance — with more frequent, shorter classroom visits, and earlier feedback. The panel had recommended using the Marshall Rubric.
“Everything to make the district function better is part of the plan of addressing the achievement gap,” he said in a later phone call. “It requires the entire system to change its mindset from where it is at the present time, basically static, to moving forward, so not only the lower income kids can do better, but all kids in the district can.” Such steps will require follow-through by the next permanent superintendent, he said.
Progress slowed by turnover
Counting interim superintendents, Parker is the seventh person to head the district in seven years, from Frank Alvarez in 2012, to interim Clarence Hoover, to Penny MacCormack, to interim Ronald Bolandi, to interim Barbara Pinsak, to Kendra Johnson, who left in July.
Jonathan Simon, who chaired the panel, believes the district leadership’s high turnover rate has hurt its efforts to fix the gap, as it could make Montclair less attractive to new candidates.
“There are negative implications if we can’t keep a leader in the seat,” he said. “It really requires someone who’s not just a strong academic leader, but someone who can navigate the various communities in town.” And he worries that frequent pushback from parents on a wide variety of issues could hurt the district’s ability to give reforms time to take hold, creating “a circular firing squad.”
Deborah Villarreal-Hadley, president of the Montclair PTA Council, said the parent-teacher associations are more aligned than they’ve ever been on the equity issue, and the groups are doing more to address it at the school level than in previous years. Each elementary school has an after-school enrichment program affordable for all students, and many have aides for students in special education classes, allowing all students to attend.
Speaking for herself, she found the AGAP report had many good suggestions, but is frustrated that no single administrator has taken responsibility for implementing them.
“Since that point it’s just been a revolving door,” she said. “It makes it very difficult for our administrators to implement, track, and revise, which is what you need to do to have any change come about.”
She hopes Parker will appoint other administrators who are as passionate about equity, so when he leaves, “all that knowledge and good intent doesn’t walk out the door, which we’ve seen before.”
What’s changed since 2015
Since the report’s release, Montclair’s demographics have shifted a bit. The number of students receiving free lunches fell 21 percent between 2015 and 2018. And in the first eight years of this decade, the African American population dropped three percentage points, and the Hispanic population grew from 7 to 10 percent.
Simon described a barbell effect in population trends, with the district losing black families at the lowest and highest socioeconomic levels. Some families who are barely scraping by decide to leave for cheaper towns when their Montclair housing becomes too expensive, and others, thriving economically, choose to send their children to private school, a phenomenon known as “bright flight.”
In 2017 suspension rates remained a problem, with black students more than four times as likely to be suspended from Montclair High School than white students, according to an investigation by ProPublica. But in the 2019-20 school year, overall suspension rates are down significantly, although the district did not provide figures, reasons, or a breakdown by race when asked. It also did not provide requested figures for changes in the racial makeup of the district’s staff or special education classes.
Restorative Justice Montclair, a new collaboration among the district, township, and teachers union, is now being implemented to build community and create more positive, less punitive interactions, using the philosophy that “human beings are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes in their behavior when those in positions of authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them,” according to a presentation to the Board of Education early last year.
Another new and promising program, a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) collaboration with Montclair State University, needs to be viewed with an eye to equity, said Michelle Fine, a local professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York who has written about the achievement gap in Montclair and other communities. The district has to account for the transportation needs of less wealthy students — those without cars, or money for trains or buses — to avoid widening the opportunity gap. She said this especially matters in a district where wealthy families pay for private tutors and threaten to send their child to private schools unless he or she is admitted to a particular advanced placement class.
“We don’t talk about the accumulation of unearned privilege. I see it as white woman,” she said. “It gets framed as merit … Districts are kind of held hostage to what elite parents want, even as they say they’re committed to equity and diversity.”
And if they have children with special needs, privileged families tend to have more discretionary time, money for lawyers, and connections to find the best possible settings for them. “If you walk through the schools, you’d think special ed was only for black males,” Fine said. She suspects Montclair has an unusually high rate of parents compelling the district to send their students with special need to schools outside the district. While the state does not publish comparisons by district, its figures show that eight percent of both white and black special education students attend out-of-district programs.
Simon finds Montclair’s vocal parent community helpful, expressing a large variety of opinions, but he said it can make it difficult for the district to focus on any one particular problem, especially one that some parents don’t think affects them or their child.
“It impacts the classroom, and everyone in the system,” he said of the gap. “We’re a community, and the essence of a community is what happens to me happens to you… It’s a challenge for any district that does this work.”
‘Broad, systemic change’
One point missing from the conversation is the county-wide perspective. Essex County is perhaps one of the most segregated in New Jersey, a state which ranks as the sixth most segregated in the country, according to a 2017 study from the UCLA Civil Rights project.
In Newark, which has a third of the county’s population, more than half of students attend schools that are known as “apartheid schools,” with black and Latino students making up at least 99 percent of the population. This could be immediately addressed by running the schools on the county level, potentially saving the cost of hundreds of administrative positions in the county’s 20 districts, money that might better be spent on rigorous, integrated magnet programs and transportation to move children from completely segregated schools to more that have a mix like Montclair’s. That would, of course, completely discombobulate a suburban real estate market predicated on traditional ideas about “desirable schools.”
Many local education watchers believe society at large needs reform, before much more local progress can occur in the schools.
Brian Ford, a member of TURN who teaches history at Montclair High School, ponders the role and power of educators, when they are confronted with the centuries-old roots of structural racism.
“I believe there’s a ceiling to what can be done in schools without broader systemic change,” he said. But he said that doesn’t keep him from working with TURN to urge the district to hire and retain more staff members of color, encouraging staff to wear Black Lives Matter T-shirts in school, and helping improve school libraries.
TURN requested and received a $700 grant from the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence, later matched by the district, to buy 34 books for each elementary school. First, they consulted teachers and learned that many wanted books about black kids just being kids, not books about them associated with slavery or the Civil Rights Movement. Another round of book-buying, with an additional $800 MFEE grant, is in the works for all 11 district schools.
The Fund has committed to allocating up to $150,000 to support race and equity work in Montclair, said Masiel Rodriquez-Vars, its executive director. In addition, to work for broader change, the Fund is developing (at the instigation of a teacher) a community-wide discussion of the root causes of equity issues. Starting in February, there will be regular watch parties for the 10-episode documentary series, “America to Me.” The show follows student race relations in Oak Park, Ill., which has similar demographics to Montclair’s.
“Superficial conversations about race and equity often focus on individual racism and don’t address racism as a system, which is shaped by power and privilege,” Rodriquez-Vars said. “If we continue to only look at racism in this narrow way, we’ll never really crack the nut.”
Tina Kelley is the co-author of Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope (Wiley/Turner 2012) and was a Metro reporter at The New York Times for a decade, where she was the founding editor of The Local blog. She is a frequent contributor to New Jersey Monthly.