A recent blog post, written by the departing head of Guidance at the High School, has added fuel to the fire surrounding the new Superintendent’s administration and the Board of Education. His perspective was blunt and clearly angry; he had some valid points to make, but missed what is really going on in our school system.
Nearly a year ago, the brand-new superintendent, Penny MacCormack, fresh off handling the Sandy crisis in her first days on the job, invited the chairs of all of the PTAs and School Action Teams to a meeting. She listened, we talked. As co-Chair of the MHS School Action Team at that time (MHS has no PTA), I spoke to our challenges and our opportunities.
We described the High School as a diamond in the rough, and told her that it should be the district’s crown jewel. It’s a wonderful school in many regards, but the quality of education and guidance our children receive there is nowhere near what it could or should be.
When the MHS principal, James Earle, arrived four years ago, it was to a school that had been led by a nearly absent principal on the verge of retirement, followed by an interim principal who commuted from Florida for half the year. The Head of Guidance left for a year and then came back, leaving a void in the interim. My own son was treated to a different guidance counselor every year he was there. The school felt chaotic, and it was.
In the midst of budget cuts, it has been hard watching amenities and new buildings around town while seemingly no resources came to the High School. We made it clear to Dr. MacCormack that the High School needed to be put on the front burner immediately, and she has responded.
Today if you walk the halls, it feels like a school that is in control. Absences and skipping have been reduced, and students behave and dress more respectfully. Parent groups have worked to improve the appearance of the school from the outside, and are now at work on advocating for inside improvements. Communication has been transformed. Nothing is perfect here – but we are on the way.
There are many issues still to address on an academic level. Interestingly, one of the most egregious issues described by frustrated parents at SAT meetings has been the mid-term and final exams—exams which often did not capture what was happening in class, lacked adequate review, and were long and stressful.
The new testing system is far from the albatross of standardized testing described by some of its opponents. Instead, our students will be given quarterly exams lasting one hour. These tests will be used by teachers, administrators and (most importantly) students, to assess their progress and figure out what they need to work on. Rather than waiting until the material is too old to be retrievable, teachers can work in real time to ensure their students master the material.
Traditionally at MHS, those at the top and the bottom have gotten lots of attention. But this is a school of over 2000 students, and most are in the middle. If they aren’t self-starters, able to advocate for themselves, they get lost. We cannot just throw up our hands and say that the status quo is good enough. Teachers, administrators, parents and students must be willing to start working together rather than regarding each other suspiciously.
Parents who are not happy with how things are going have a great resource that does not require petitions or acrimony: the School Action Team (the current chairs are Grace Grund and Linda Bowers). The main goal of the SAT over the past few years has been to address issues head-on, and to build a sense of community. Participation is the only way to do that. Hopefully more parents will begin to participate, as well as more teachers (some already do) – both by offering opinions as well as rolling up their sleeves to get to work. Condemning hardworking volunteers or professionals (particularly if you’ve already left) is not constructive. Participating in an earnest and productive process is.
Helen Mazarakis is former co-Chair of the Montclair High School School Action Team (2010/11-2012/13)and was a member of the Team from 2007.