Better communication, more support for students and stronger programming for special education were among the challenges raised by more than 60 community members who participated on November 13 at the District’s first Strategic Planning Forum.

Allison Silverstein, president of the Montclair Board of Education, welcomed parents, students, staff members and other community stakeholders, who gathered in small groups to discuss the District’s strengths, challenges as well as their vision for the future of Montclair’s schools.

“It’s very important to get community participation at this forum because it’s about what the community wants to see in the next few years in our schools,” Silverstein said.

Dr. Jonathan Ponds, superintendent of Montclair Public Schools, was excited by the turnout. Speaking to the Local he said, “I’m really looking forward to hearing what everyone has to say and how this will shape the future of our schools in the next five years.”

State of the District

Dr. Jonathan Ponds, Montclair Schools superintendent, addressed parents and stakeholders at the forum. (SHERRY FERNANDES)

Ponds asked participants to be open and honest about educational issues and the challenges they face. Through a presentation, Ponds explained the current state of the district, including the number of district schools, student demographics, and budgets.

Regarding the high school, Ponds called the 28 available AP courses “impressive” and mentioned this year’s new courses – AP Psychology and AP Precalculus. Other opportunities included 28 varsity sports teams, six world languages, and a variety of extracurricular activities and clubs.

Ponds also addressed the achievement gap. “We understand that there’s a gap and we’re not going to run away from this. We will address it and make sure every child is learning,” he said. Steps to address this gap include increasing instruction time, targeted interventions, addressing multiple learning styles, and providing professional development for teachers.

From special education to music and the arts, Ponds highlighted how programming and initiatives address various academic and social needs of students.

Regarding the social and emotional well-being of students, Ponds recognized the diverse needs emerged post-pandemic. “This is something we’re tackling. Our students have all come back from the pandemic with different needs, and we’re reaching out and adapting to meet those needs differently,” he said.

Other opportunities for students included career and technical education that could help students secure internships in carpentry, medicine, government agencies, or local companies.

The Strategic Planning Process

“You have a choice, you have the capacity now to make decisions on how you want to see your schools transform in the next five years. It now falls into your hands. Please get involved,” Ponds told the audience.

Charlene Peterson, a representative of the New Jersey School Boards Association, urged participation in the three forums. (SHERRY FERNANDES)

“We’re essentially handing you the keys to the car and asking you where you’re going to drive us in the next five years? How are you going to help us move forward?” said Charlene Peterson, a representative of the New Jersey School Boards Association.

Peterson said the forums offer a great opportunity for stakeholders to come together and have important conversations. “It takes all of us together to talk about what we need to do, how we’re going to do it, and then make sure that the work we’re doing aligns with what the community wants for our students,” she said.

Small groups worked together to identify the strengths of the school district as well as the challenges. (SHERRY FERNANDES)

Peterson said the forums are a three-meeting process. At the first meeting Monday night, attendees were divided into several groups, consisting of students, parents and staff members, to discuss the strengths of the school district and the potential challenges and issues that needed attention.

Strengths and challenges depicted by one of the small working groups. (SHERRY FERNANDES)

Every group agreed that there needs to be better communication from the administration.

“We need more community engagement,” said one member while presenting the group’s findings. Another presenter also touched on the constant emails from the schools, mentioning that very few demonstrated good communication.

“The communication between administration and faculty needs improvement, and there needs to be more rationale behind their decisions,” the presenter said.

Parents also emphasized the need for schools to create more opportunities for children with IEPs and assistive technologies, ensuring their inclusion in activities with their peers. Another issue raised was the lack of sports opportunities for middle school students.

Each of the small groups collaborated to create a list of strengths and challenges. (SHERRY FERNANDES)

Speaking to the Local, Wyatt Foster, a sophomore student, said, “I think this was a great step to bring the whole community together.” Foster presented for his group and mentioned the lack of diversity available at higher levels and how AP courses were predominantly taught by white males. “This prevents diverse groups from accessing these courses,” he said.

Foster is hopeful that this first meeting will lead to more engaging conversations in upcoming meetings to help address several of the challenges discussed.

The next forums are scheduled for November 29 and December 11 at the George Inness Annex Atrium, 141 Park Street, at 6:30 PM. The new Strategic Planning webpage can be found on the Board of Education website. Here, you will find the State of the District presentation along with the New Jersey School Boards Association’s presentation outlining how these meetings are organized.

Sherry Fernandes is a reporter for Montclair Local covering stories focused on municipal government and education. She earned her Master of Science in Journalism from the Columbia University – Graduate...

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