New Superintendent Presents Plan
The Montclair Board of Education met on November 19 with newly installed Superintendent Dr. Penny MacCormack presiding for the first time. Dr. MacCormack took over on November 1 in the middle of the disruption caused by Hurricane Sandy, but she made it clear that she was hitting the ground running as Montclair’s new school superintendent.
“I come to you as an educator who has held multiple positions in education,” she said. “All of those opportunities and experiences have allowed me to gain the expertise and skills and knowledge I need to be a good superintendent and a good leader. But what I really need to know now is specifics about the contest here in Montclair.” She pledged to continue working with the district and meeting with teachers and students to keep improving the schools.
Dr. MacCormack presented an ambitious plan at the school board meeting to get students on a stronger track to academic excellence and prepare them for college and careers. She presented a series of academic benchmarks called the Common Core standards, which have been adopted by the state and are designed to make students more proficient in reading, mathematics and geometry. Recognized as being more rigorous and more basic and matching international benchmarks, the new superintendent noted that 45 states (including New Jersey) and the District of Columbia have adopted them in an effort to keep American students from falling behind students of other countries.
Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Barbara Weller described the Common Core standards as a “major shift” in how students are taught. The new reading benchmarks require students to grasp the meaning of complex text and build their knowledge and comprehensive skills from reading materials heavy in content. Children would be encouraged to use illustrations, dictating and writing to state opinions on topics and convey and understanding of the topics as early as kindergarten. Mathematics would require more sophisticated problem solving beyond the rote memorizing of multiplication tables, while geometry lessons would require students to understand and explain the Pythagorean Theorem of geometry more coherently. Assessments of student progress would be made through the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a consortium that includes New Jersey, 22 other states and the District of Columbia by the 2014-15 school year.
“We used to be a system where we had students on a college track and students on a vocational track. And that was okay at the time, because on the vocational track, you could get a good paying job, own a home, support a family,” Dr. MacCormack explained. “But those kinds of careers are gone. And what we find are, the careers and jobs out there require the same skills and knowledge as if you were going to college.”
Board member Norman Rosenblum had praise for the emphasis on the curriculum in the conversations. “I’m not 100 percent sold,” he said of the reforms that have been suggested, “but I love the idea that we’re talking about it.”
Samantha Morra Case
The Samantha Morra case came up again when William Nossen, the lawyer from the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association who represents Ms. Morra, offered a detailed account of Ms. Morra’s acknowledgement of her Little Falls residence from the moment she was asked about her children attending public school in Montclair in explaining her understanding that then-Superintendent Dr. Frank Alvarez allowed it. Board President Robin Kulwin did not allow him to finish his prepared statement owing to time constraints, and this was the only mention of the Morra case in the meeting.
Drug Use, Vandalsim and Violence in the Schools
Dr. Felice Harrison, Assistant to the Superintendent, offered commentary on a more sobering subject, that of vandalism of violence. She noted that many categories of vandalism and violence had had zero instances recorded, and she also reported that instances assault, criminal threat, robbery, arson and theft had all decreased from the 2010-11 school year to 2011-12. Dr. Harrison also reported, though, that extortion, bullying, damage to property, trespassing, weapons and substance abuse had increased in that same time. The statistics showed that the number of incidents of vandalism and violence were still relatively low, and Dr. Harrison added that three more students (22, up from 19) committed offenses in the 2011-12 school year than the year before.
Seven confirmed cases of possession of controlled substances by students in the schools took place during the 2011-2012 academic year. Her biggest concern was the growth of use of synthetic marijuana use in the school system, and she informed the school board of plans to hold a follow-up forum for parents of middle school students after having had a forum for middle school and high school parents in April. The follow-up, originally scheduled for November 15, has been postponed until December or January.
“We’re finding that students are using more of this synthetic marijuana,” Dr. Harrison said, “and it’s a serious issue because it’s not harmless.”