Over the Memorial Day weekend, students, parents and school faculty came together to discuss steps Montclair can take to reduce Montclair’s achievement gap.

The Montclair NAACP Youth Council held a “Let’s Talk About It” event on Sunday, May 24, for the public to share their thoughts on what is contributing to Montclair’s long-standing achievement gap, and how those issues could probably be addressed.

A 2015 report from an advisory panel on the achievement gap and follow-up reports by the district, have found that students of color are disproportionately less likely to achieve grades of “Meets Expectations” on standardized tests than white students. Additionally, students of color are more likely to be suspended or expelled, and less likely to be tracked into honors and AP-level courses.

Over the course of two hours, the participants shared their perspectives on what is contributing to the achievement gap, identifying issues such as institutional racism, curriculum issues, academic tracking, and a need for families to discuss biases with their children early on.

Rising senior and council president Genesis Whitlock, who moderated the general forum, noted that middle school is where issues with the achievement gap become especially pronounced, as students start to get tracked into classes that will determine their academic path in high school.

Albert Pelham, the president of the Montclair NAACP, said that the schools and associated groups need to take steps to be more welcoming to parents, and make them feel that they belonged. For example, he said, a PTA meeting at 10 a.m. on a weekday, followed by tea at someone’s house, is not feasible for a parent who may be working their second or third job.

Whitlock noted that her family moved to the United States from Antigua when she was in the seventh grade. She went from being at the top of her class in math at her previous school in Antigua to being ranked fairly low academically in the Montclair schools. Communication issues were also a problem, and she was mocked and criticized for addressing teachers with “sir” and “ma’am.”

Juanita Barnes, who teaches in the Asbury Park school district, said Montclair schools have a good reputation, but she became aware of some of the problems when her niece entered middle school. Many middle school students are apprehensive about what they will face once they enter high school, she said.

Dory Hack, the parent of an Edgemont student, said the efforts to correct the achievement gap need to start early in elementary school. Those efforts need to start with the parents, especially white parents, she said. “I don’t think it’s fair to put the burden on the students, and I don’t think it’s fair to put the burden on parents of color.”  Parents need to be prepared to have discussions with their children about biases and how to address them, she said.

Petal Robertson, chair of the Montclair Education Association, pointed to curriculum issues such as a “100 Great Authors” poster, in which the authors were predominantly white and male, a trend that is still reflected in many literature classes in high schools. Students wanting to learn about authors such as James Baldwin, however, have to sign up for a specific class, she said.

Whitlock suggested that the method of tracking students into different academic tracks be revisited. One possibility is integrated learning, in which students at different levels would all receive the same information, but would do work at their individual level. Whitlock also suggested that teachers receive cultural competency training to enable them to work with students from different backgrounds.

Parent Dhia Barnes suggested a “playbook” be made available to every family explaining how the different aspects of the schools worked. This would help parents to get to know and work the system inorder to gain advantages for their children.

Some of the parents suggested the formation of a parent task force.

Interim Superintendent Nathan Parker said the achievement gap and opportunity gaps were a priority, and one of the reasons why he accepted the interim superintendent position in Montclair. He said that he was surprised, when he started, at the extent of the gaps, but he said he was confident that the Montclair schools could take steps to make changes.

Incoming Superintendent Jonathan Ponds, who will take over in July, said that Montclair was in a position to take tangible steps to correct the achievement gap and improve opportunities for all students. It is crucial that everyone work together toward that goal, he said.

“This is an opportunity we cannot waste,” Ponds said.

A panel was convened to address the achievement gap in 2015, but only a small number of recommendations, including the creation of an assistant superintendent for equity, curriculum and instruction, were implemented.