Several Montclair residents braved the sudden snow and slippery conditions on March 18 to attend the monthly Montclair Board of Education meeting. The discussion largely centered around the budget and Montclair’s plan of action for improving student aptitude in under-performing schools under a waiver granted to New Jersey by the federal Department of Education regarding academic accountability standards.
Closing the Achievement Gap
The waiver granted to New Jersey in February 2012 allows New Jersey’s schools to be exempted from the Elementary and Secondary Educational Act (ESEA) of 1965 (revised under the slogan “No Child Left Behind” in 2001) to give under-performing schools more time to get their standards up. In her presentation, Montclair Schools Superintendent Dr. Penny MacCormack explained that the waiver gives the state the ability to eliminate accountability standard and identify and support the schools that perform the lowest and have the greatest number of achievement gaps among the students, as well as implement the Common Core standards and improve teacher effectiveness.
In Montclair, when broken down in racial and ethnic subgroups, non-Hispanic white and Asian students met their 2012 goals of 90 percent proficiency in mathematics and 90 percent (white) and 88.2 percent (Asian) in language arts while black and Hispanic students fell short in both categories, causing the student body en masse to fail overall goals in language arts (79.5 percent proficiency versus a targeted 82.5 percent) and in mathematics (82.2 percent versus a target of 85 percent).
Two Montclair schools, Glenfield Middle School and Bullock Elementary School, have already been classified as “Focus” cases –schools with a low graduation rate, large gaps between the ethnic subgroups, or lowest subgroup performance. But four schools—Hillside Elementary School, Northeast Elementary School, Mount Hebron Middle School, and Renaissance at Rand Middle School—were singled out for not meeting their progress targets. Dr. MacCormack has formulated plans in her report titled, “Raising Student Achievement, Closing Achievement Gaps,” to get these schools up to speed by identifying and addressing student weaknesses and allowing teachers to plan together and share data, and assigning staff to target students’ needs. The details of the overall report and the plans for the schools are available on the Montclair school district website here.
“This work, as always, would be done with teachers, teachers helping us to design both the curriculum and the assessments,” said Dr. MacCormack, noting that these initiatives would be spread through the district to support student achievement. “Our plan, actually, is to have those assessments handed out to all teachers in the beginning of the school year so we can get input and make those assessments as high-quality as possible.”
Dr. MacCormack warned though, that the plan would only be a first step.
“Having resources and having assessments doesn’t close gaps,” she said. You’ve got to have time for the teachers to plan together and to use that data productively together to inform instruction.”
In 2013-2014 the district will be transitioning to Common Core and by 2015, will start using the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) assessment, a common set of K-12 assessments in English and math anchored in what it takes to be ready for college and careers.
Board member Leslie Larson stated, “I’m shocked because we were very clearly told last year that the gap was narrowing and we were as close as we’ve ever been.” In October 2011, former Superintendent Frank Alvarez reported, “the district is making great strides in raising achievement levels for all students. Our efforts to close achievement gaps among the various No Child Left Behind identified sub-groups are being realized.”
Larson asked if the “Focus schools” referred to earlier were still being addressed. Dr. MacCormack replied that they were in fact working toward achieving their goals with help from the state, but she singled out the staffs at Glenfield and Bullock for their extra effort.
Earlier in the meeting, Board President Robin Kulwin announced that the 2013-14 school budget had been submitted to and approved by Essex County and was ready to go before the Board of School Estimate, a group of three Township Council members and two Board of Education members. Kulwin noted the extra effort in making the budget easier to contrast with the 2012-13 budget by showing comparisons on an line-by-line basis.
“This is the first school budget with year-to year comparisons,” she said. “The Board is pleased to note that it is indeed possible to produce the budget in this format.” She noted that the 2013-14 budget uses actual spending figures from the previous budget rather than estimates as a guideline.
The new budget focuses increased resources for K-3 literacy skills and a reorganization of the district office to better recruit and retain teachers. There are not decreases in teachers’ salaries and benefits, and many increases for special education and basic skills teachers, with salary estimates totaling $72 million based on what the district expects to negotiate with the Montclair Education Association (MEA). Health care benefits will be increased to $18.9 million – the budget’s largest single line item increase.
BoE and MEA Contract Negotiations
Regarding the talk about the budget and the district, Kulwin added in speaking for herself that many of the comments were fair and thoughtful, while others were “not quite as respectful and often seemed to rely on conjecture, rather than on facts.” On the current negotiations between the BoE and MEA, Kulwin said, ”We believe the offer put forward by the Board is fair.” A mediator has been hired to work with the groups. Kulwin added, “There is nothing wrong with admitting that we need help from a mediator.”
For her part, MEA leader Gayl Shepard told the board acknowledged the difficulty of finalizing a contract between her members and the district.
“We recognize that labor negotiations are simply part of the process. We also recognize that negotiations will be challenging at times, Shepard said in her MEA report to the board.
“I’m confident that we will ratify a contract—a fair contract that reflects the principles, strength and character of our town,” she added.
The Board of School Estimate will work on the budget on Thursday, March 21 at a 7:00 pm meeting at the George Inness Annex of Montclair High School and on March 28 at an 8 PM meeting at Glenfield Middle School’s auditorium. A final adoption is scheduled for April 4.