The Black Parents Workshop, Inc., provided a questionnaire to all of the candidates for the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education in the November 6, 2018 election. Below are my responses in full as submitted.
1. How would you propose to increase the number of Black teachers in the district, and specifically the presence of Black male teachers?
There are at least three things that the district must prioritize — as part of a broader, ongoing strategy — in order to increase the number of Black teachers in SOMSD schools: Recruitment efforts, professional development, and in-district support. Educational conferences and college campus job fairs, particularly at historically Black colleges, can be a starting point for getting the word out that diversity matters to the district. Beyond that, greater cooperation and dialogue with groups such as the National Alliance of Black School Educators to help the district shape a strategy for recruiting and supporting teachers of color, including Black and Latino educators. This issue is more widespread than within just our district, so it will require an ongoing, multi-year effort to begin to change things. In the meantime, the district can evaluate diversity training programs for administrators, principals and teachers — and even Board of Education members — in order to create a more supportive, nurturing environment for all teachers, especially new recruits. The district can also look at adapting successful initiatives such as NYC Men Teach, which “helps men of color through the entire certification process, provides them with mentorship and training to transition into the field, and has cultivated a community of Black male teachers who are in the education workforce.” Finally, Black teachers who are recruited to the district must have a support system established, whether in the form of an ombudsman to listen to their concerns, or an assistant superintendent tasked with measurable goals for increasing minority staff levels. Recruiting Black teachers is only part of the equation. The support and nurturing of their careers is another equally important component, and we need to respect and empower them.
2. What strategies would you propose to decrease the use of disciplinary measures that have driven racial disparities in in-school and out-of-school suspensions, and expulsions?
Any strategy must address two possible issues here — one is of unconscious bias that contributes to a disparity of how disciplinary measures are meted out, and the other is of the lack of a formalized position of student advocate. We can do a better job of creating professional-development programs that help us understand our unconscious biases, and address how they play out in the classroom when it comes to student discipline. Disciplinary policies need to be transparent and designed with the goal of getting students the help they need in order to receive the education to help them achieve their goals in school and beyond. Policies regarding the behavior of Columbia High School security guards — a code of conduct that emphasizes respect for students — should be another area that can be examined. The other component involves having a student advocate in each building tasked with hearing students’ concerns in an impartial manner — an ombudsman-type role, perhaps — to give students a voice in how they themselves are treated.
3. Do you support the reassignment of students to K-5 schools to desegregate the student population in elementary schools, and if necessary, to use bussing to transport students to schools?
I do. Having been raised and educated in Queens — the single most diverse county in the United States — I am grateful for having had a diversity of race, color, language, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and experience as part of my education. I sat next to children from India, Haiti, Poland, Afghanistan, Ecuador and Germany throughout my elementary school years, and it wasn’t until years later than I began to fully understand what a gift that was. An unintended, and possibly immeasurable, effect of diversity is a greater empathy toward others, a richer understanding of historical context in current events, and the acceptance of varying viewpoints. No standardized test can measure such benefits accurately, and they have made a profound impact on my life.
That said, I think that when we are all given an equal stake in each of the schools across SOMSD, all schools will benefit, and we would be less likely to see buildings in such states of disrepair that we have caved-in ceilings, crumbling concrete steps, rotting window frames and heating boilers that look like they’re from the 1800s. The district’s facilities plan addresses those badly needed repairs, as well as address overcrowding and eliminate the “temporary” trailer classrooms that present a safety, security and health issue, along with falling short in giving our children the learning environment they deserve. We as a community will benefit from having to solve the challenges ahead when we the responsibility to address them falls on all of us, and there are intangible benefits yet to be seen.
4. Do you support the full implementation of the state-mandated Amistad Black History curriculum?
Absolutely. Without integrating Black history into the whole curriculum, we are failing to provide all of our students a full understanding of American history that helps to place current events and social movements into proper context. Perhaps one of the biggest benefits of the Amistad Black History curriculum involves the evaluation of primary historical sources, and doing so in a critical manner, which is a skill desperately needed in our age of social media and misleading information. The lessons our students now receive are so widely disparate that they might as well be attending schools in different districts, and this needs to change. Personally, I was impressed that kindergarteners in one class could recognize Rosa Parks in a photograph and explain her significance in U.S. history, and I was shocked that kindergarteners in another class received photocopies of a coloring page featuring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and were told that he “led parades.” Only a curriculum that fully implements a more balanced and updated approach to teaching American history will serve our students and provide them with the tools to understand the world that they will inherit and help to shape.
5. Would you support budgetary appropriations for supplemental programs and staffing focused on aiding the enrollment of Black students in advanced-level and Advanced Placement (AP) courses?
Yes. Helping students of color enroll and succeed in advanced-level and AP courses is a critical component of educating the entirety of our district’s student population. I also recognize that various seemingly disparate educational factors are connected, and such supplementary programs would be further supported by the hiring of more Black teachers, as well as by professional diversity training for faculty, and by fully implementing the Amistad Black History curriculum. None of this exists in a vacuum, and the more we think of adapting resources to better serve Black students, the better off all our students will be. As for the inevitable question of where will we find the money, I also believe that SOMSD must do a better job of advocating for the state to live up to its own schools funding formula, which it has shortchanged for too many years under a previous administration that harmed our communities.
6. What are the most important qualities you are looking for in the next superintendent?
The next superintendent must be a visionary leader and an effective manager who has a track record of assessing priorities, setting them and committing the resources necessary to achieve those goals. Communication is absolutely essential, a shortcoming that even the superintendent search consultant cited in his update on the process. (I wrote about it here: https://www.tapinto.net/towns/soma/categories/candidate-statements/articles/challenges-and-opportunities-in-the-current-somsd-superintendent-search ) The next superintendent must demonstrate a healthy, profound respect for creativity and innovation, while also understanding the diverse needs of a growing student population. Essentially, our next schools leader must be committed to Transparency, Accountability and Dignity.
7. As you may know, the Black Parents Workshop (BPW) filed a federal lawsuit against the South Orange/Maplewood School District (District) on February 27, 2018, alleging violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and provisions of the New Jersey State Constitution. BPW filed the lawsuit based on the failure of the District to sufficiently address two issues that the District agreed to resolve in the 2014 Resolution Agreement with the United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR). The Office of Civil Rights has verified that the South Orange-Maplewood School District is not in compliance. Specifically: 1. Addressing the disparity of African-American children in AP classes; and 2. Addressing the disparity of African-American children suspended by the District as compared to other ethnic groups. Based on your knowledge of the data produced by the district regarding the disparity of African-Americans in advanced-level and Advanced Placement (AP) classes:
- Do you support the discontinuation of ‘tracking’ and the elimination of academic levels?
Yes, although I would want to see greater access to additional support for students who need helping keeping up in level-integrated classes. Teachers also should be allowed discretion to use lesson plans that span a range of abilities, and a variety of subject matter, basing class instruction on a class-by-class assessment of interests, abilities and goals.
- What strategies would you propose to support students in grades K-5 to prepare them for enrollment in rigorous courses in high school?
Just as the elimination of academic levels, to some degree, can help eliminate some of the self-fulfilling prophecies of tracking, giving teachers the flexibility to adjust the difficulty of course materials could provide each grade a taste of what they will need to learn in subsequent grades. Some studies suggest that age-mixed classes, where appropriate, can have a beneficial effect for young children, as well as for older students mentoring younger ones.
- What restorative justice practices would you suggest to make certain students do not miss valuable class time for minor disciplinary infractions?
In speaking with parents over the past couple of months, I have been surprised to hear of such instances such as SOMSD elementary students being made to sit facing a wall as punishment, as well as high-school students being treated disrespectfully by security guards. We need to do a better job of honoring the dignity of all our students, and this means considering a variety of options.
- Conflict resolution needs to be an essential part of our schools’ toolkit for teaching children not just academic subjects, but to help prepare them for the world around us. That requires giving children the time, the space and the words to express themselves. Teachers, students and administrators need to work more collaboratively in this arena.
- Service projects that are age-appropriate can be incorporated into the range of disciplinary options available for minor infractions. This can involve volunteering at a location that has been pre-selected, for instance.
- Creative problem-solving might be yet another way that students can be made to consider their role in society, and acknowledge talents they might have that may not be evident in the course of normal classroom instruction. Build something. Write a song. Make a video. Make it relevant to the student’s experiences, talents and interests.
- 2018 Board of Education Questionnaire, The Black Parents Workshop
- School Safety: Let’s Consider the Effect of Lockdown Drills on Students
- 2018 Board of Education Candidate Questionnaire: SOMA Justice + PARES