By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

Interim Superintendent Nathan Parker was brought in as Montclair’s interim superintendent of schools in August, as the district searches for a permanent superintendent. As of Dec. 19, Parker has now been at the helm of the district for four months.

Montclair Local spoke to Parker about his plans for the district, and what he would like to see accomplished during his tenure in Montclair:

Montclair Local: What is your number-one priority as interim superintendent?

Parker: Implement the Entry Planning Approach, which involves face-to-face meetings with key stakeholders in the community. This Entry Process enables the new leader of an organization to meet key people within the school system and community and learn their perceptions of what's working in the school system that needs support and aspects of the school system that need attention.

ML: You spent time talking with students in your first few weeks as interim. What was the most important thing that students told you they wanted?

Parker: Students were particularly pleased that someone from the district leadership asked them for their opinions. They greatly appreciated my reaching out to them. They for the most part found the high school a much more organized and pleasant place to learn with the new block schedule. They wanted to be listened to more and felt parents on occasion did not represent their best interests such as preventing the May 20 plan to be implemented (closing down school early for the stairwell renovations). They would like to be encouraged to take more academic risks and be encouraged to take more challenging courses.

ML: How would you increase enrollment by students of color in AP and honors classes at the high school? 

Parker: I need to learn more about how the process occurs at the present time. Any new strategies need to be made in collaboration with teachers. In general, especially in areas of mathematics, the sequence of math courses determines whether or not a student will be prepared to take AP math sequence prior to graduating from high school. Parents need to know that sequence as early as middle school. Also, students of color who may be borderline qualifying for more challenging class should be encouraged to do so and the school district must have a support system in place to support this effort.

ML: Do you think that this will help with the achievement gap?  

Parker: Eliminating the achievement gap must be systematic effort starting very early in a child's life. Of course learning the sequence in getting to advance courses is part of the process I described in the question above regarding mathematics.

ML: Studies have shown the effectiveness of full-day Pre-K in helping students do well in school and addressing the achievement gap. Montclair has not had full-day Pre-K in the schools for several years. Do you think it's important for Montclair to re-institute full-day Pre-K?

Parker: I am not certain why it was eliminated. In general, school districts, during hard economic times make resource allocation decisions that have significant consequences. This decision, I believe, in particular had a negative impact. Bringing back full-day, pre-K would require additional space, staff, and professional learning. It would be a major financial commitment to do so. Bringing back pre-K to Montclair would be one key element in the systemic change process to eliminate the achievement gap.

ML: If so, how do you think that could be funded?

Parker: The first step is to understand more clearly how we presently expend resources. If one is going to spend more money on pre-K, some other areas would have to be reduced. In addition, a commitment for additional expenditures for facilities would have to be made.

ML: Montclair's district architects presented the district with a $65 million list of facilities projects that were recommended for the next five years, including $20 million in priority projects. What do you think could be done to ensure the district's facilities are being maintained, and how could they be funded?

Parker: We are in the process of reviewing proposals from a variety of architectural firms to perform a long-range facility plan that will assess the current status of our buildings, mechanicals, and appropriateness for 21st century learning. This needs assessment will provide a clearer vision of how the facilities can be updated and of course maintained. Funding for capital expenditures in Type 1 districts initially is approved by the board of education and ultimately by the board of school estimate.

ML: Montclair has been in the process of doing security upgrades, including reinforced exterior doors and new master key systems. What else, in your view, should be done to ensure that the schools are kept safe for students, staff and visitors? 

Parker: We are in the process of reassessing current procedures. Most important is maintaining our strong relationship with the Montclair Police Department. To that end we are working collaboratively with the MPD in the process. Entry of visitors into each building is a key element that we are looking at closely.

ML: Additionally, Alyssa's Law, which was signed into law this year, requires schools to install silent panic alarms or similar systems. When and how would you see the Montclair schools implement this law?

Parker: Certain elements of our systems we do not disclose.

ML: Mental health has been a topic of discussion in the Montclair schools in recent years. Do you think that more could be done to help students with their mental health, along with their academic work? If so, what are your suggestions or ideas?

Parker: This is an area that we always assessing. This district has made a number of strides over the years in this area. There is more and more evidence that the use of cell phones and connection to electronic devices are generating more and more challenges to our mental health.  Many more harassment and bullying cases are now linked to the internet and very difficult to control.