This is just getting ridiculous.
Earlier this week we got an email newsletter from Montclair Superintendent Penny McCormack welcoming families back to school and informing the community about some new and exciting news from the district. You know, the sort of stuff parents (and the community) definitely want to hear about – the district’s new learning task force, efforts to close the achievement gap, new technology investments and improvements, renovating the high school cafeteria, reducing kindergarten class sizes, bringing back world languages, and expanding school breakfast (we’re including the full text of the email we got below, for anyone interested. We also found it here online). We were glad to get the message.
It’s great news, all of it. Our community here in Montclair is making progress, and it’s good to hear about. We’ve been excited about some of these initiatives (especially world languages!) and were glad to hear about the progess, and hear about what all’s happening and planned in the district generally. We read the email. We felt better informed about the district. We moved on to the next email in our inbox. We didn’t think much of it again, until this morning.
Now, over at MCAS, they’re concerned that an email to parents about what the district is up to is a bunch of despicable “PR Spin”:
Tired of glossy, shiny, feel good PR emails from the district–the 21st century equivalent of the shiny, feel good pamphlet selling you something YOU should not buy or give to kids?
Apparently they previously concern-trolled about it here too.
For us, this was the sort of email that – if you care about things being better in Montclair schools – you’re happy to get. So while we were initially surprised to hear about the usual anti-district activist types getting upset, in retrospect, it makes perfect sense.
We don’t get them. We’re sincere about wanting better results from Montclair’s schools. That’s why we started this project in the first place. In theory, Michelle Fine, Maia Davis, and the other activists and union folks behind MCAS should be too. But their behavior around this is very telling. Instead of celebrating things that are unquestionably good for our schools and our community, they’re worrying about the district communicating successes to parents. Why are they worried? Because their strategy all along has been to sabotage, sabotage, sabotage. And if things are working, it undermines that.
Maia Davis’s boss at the teacher union in NYC spelled out their plan previously: “Gum Up The Works.” For them, it’s all politics.
That’s what they’ve been trying here in Montclair, but when things start working and momentum builds, they aren’t able to use it as part of their national agenda. That’s why they’re upset about the newsletter.
Initially, one of their major complaints (as we recall) was a lack of communication from the district. Now, the district is upping it’s communications efforts and making sure the community is aware of what’s going on. And that means one less thing for them to complain about. They also like to say the district has no progress to point to. But with progress being made, it takes away another of their attacks. The truth is they don’t seem to care about progress for our kids (or at least, don’t seem supportive of it), and that’s a problem. Instead of being focused on progress for our kids, they’re focused on their own political games.
We know that because if they cared about progress in the schools they’d be excited about the district’s new learning task force, efforts to close the achievement gap, new technology investments and improvements, renovating the high school cafeteria, reducing kindergarten class sizes, bringing back world languages, and expanding school breakfast. They’d be excited about the progress being made that’s highlighted in the newsletter.
Instead, they’re threatened by it. And that’s telling of their priorities and their real agenda here in Montclair.
Here’s the full email:
From: Montclair Public Schools <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Welcome Back!
Date: September 2, 2014 at 9:46:41 AM EDT
Reply-To: Montclair Public Schools <email@example.com>
As we look forward to the start of a new school year, several outstanding developments across the District make me more excited and optimistic than ever.
Principals, teachers and staff members in the District wake up each morning mindful that you have entrusted us with your children. We take this responsibility seriously, and we invest care, thought and passion in the education of our young people. While we are here, first and foremost, to serve your children, we are also here to listen to your feedback and respond to your concerns. Therefore, throughout this school year, we will dedicate ourselves to listening and making necessary improvements and adjustments. To accomplish this, we seek your input and engagement.
This is my first communication of the new school year, and I am happy to announce that you will be hearing from me more frequently and proactively. This year we will continue the monthly parent meetings at each school, we will be broadcasting Montclair Board of Education (BOE) meetings live on television and online, scheduling meetings with families of children participating in youth athletic leagues, scheduling office hours open to the community, and revamping our regular emails and newsletters to serve you better.
I’d like to take this opportunity to highlight some significant updates and plans for the 2014-15 school year that I believe may interest you:
Teaching and Learning Task Force
During the spring and early summer, something extraordinary took place. Montclair Education Association President Gayl Shepard and I assembled a collaborative task force, which held a series of meetings to create a unified teaching and learning framework for the elementary, middle and high school levels. We listened to one another, engaged in respectful dialogue and learned from one another’s ideas and needs. As a result, we now have an agreed upon road map for all teachers to follow that supports regular benchmarking of student progress to ensure the strongest possible instruction. This is a significant breakthrough for our community, not only because we are uniting around core ideals and developing needed clarity, but also because we are building a model for collaboration that will benefit all of us in the years to come.
When I joined the Montclair Public Schools District almost two years ago, I identified the achievement gap as one of our most significant issues. I made it a central part of the strategic plan the BOE unanimously approved. As school let out this past June, I appointed Jonathan Simon to chair an Achievement Gap Advisory Panel (AGAP). The panel is a completely independent body of forty volunteers representing the diversity that defines Montclair: concerned parents, academicians, community organizers, and non-profit leaders. During the summer, AGAP divided into two subcommittees, early grades and secondary grades, and began to focus on community outreach. Panel members have gathered insights and observations from parents and community groups, including the NAACP and several other non-profits, and are studying data that the District made available. Again, I view this as a top priority for the coming year, and I encourage all families to join me in the effort to close the achievement gap here in Montclair.
Classroom Innovation and Technology
Last spring the District hired its first Technology Director, Barry Haines. I asked Barry to conduct a review of our schools’ technology and innovation resources, and we discovered some serious problems: some schools had an 11:1 student-to-computer ratio, while others had a 3:1 ratio. Simply put, these numbers needed to change. In addition, this review found that the current, shared school Internet connections barely provided students and teachers with the bandwidth necessary to access fundamental digital learning tools. We even found that the broadband connection in some schools provided the same data speed as a single home using a dial-up connection circa 1995. To address these findings, the District launched the first stage of an Equity Innovation Plan. The following upgrades took place during this summer:
- Remediation of the network, enabling District schools to connect to the Internet service provider with a ten-fold increase in bandwidth;
- Replacement of outdated network equipment in all buildings to maximize utilization of the newly increased bandwidth;
- Procurement of mobile computers for all teachers in grades 6 through 12 as part of the District’s current investment in technology; and
- Installation of state-of-the-art projectors and whiteboards in 88 core content high school classrooms, replacing pre-1950s chalkboards. This improvement will allow teachers to bring in Web 2.0 learning tools, such as: primary resources in social studies, peer-review capabilities in language arts, manipulatives to improve understanding of mathematics concepts, and the ability to project software resources to better understand science concepts.
Let me be clear on this issue. Our students cannot compete with subpar technology in the classroom. Embracing technology and innovation and embedding it in our classrooms is critical to building 21st century schools. You will see these advancements firsthand when we open our school doors. And this is only Phase I. We will announce future plans and priorities later in the fall, and will continue to update you.
MHS Cafeteria Renovation
District funds along with the generous work and support of the School Action Team for Partnership (SATp) parent volunteers and the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence (MFEE) have enabled us to completely revamp the high school cafeteria into more of a student center. The outcome is spectacular! The area has been repainted; new ceiling and floors are in place, as are charging stations for laptops and phones. Modern new furniture invites reconfiguration for meeting, socializing and small group activity and/or instruction. We also re-established the MHS school store and added a grab-and-go station separate from the cafeteria lunch line. The fresh new look, feel and functionality will, I am confident, help to build community and school pride.
Kindergarten Class Size Reduction
Class size is one of the most important factors in creating the best learning environment for our youngest children. This summer, we added three new kindergarten classes (two at Nishuane, one at Bullock), reducing kindergarten average class size from 24 to 21. Since every kindergarten class has both a teacher and teaching assistant, the adult to student ratio is 1:11.
Traditionally, one of the aspects of a Montclair public school education has been our early emphasis on World Language. In recent years, admittedly, ground was lost in this area. Last year live World Language instruction was only offered at Nishuane (Mandarin) and Hillside (Mandarin and Spanish). I am proud to announce that we are reintroducing quality, K-5 World Language instruction at all of our schools. We have fully funded additional Spanish language teachers (4.5 full-time) to instruct at Bradford, Bullock, Edgemont, Northeast and Watchung.
In past years the District has operated a school breakfast program in schools required to do so by law. Being amagnet District, in which a large percentage of students are bused to school, many students (including those eligible for free-and-reduced price meals) were unable to take advantage of our breakfast service. Research, especially research related to the achievement gap, tells us we need to do more. This year for the first time, the District will serve breakfast in all schools.
These advances, those few listed above and many others, cannot happen in a vacuum. It takes many dedicated individuals and organizations to make meaningful change happen. I want to express my deep appreciation to the staff, each school’s PTA and SATp, and to the many of you who have shared your time and resources in support of our schools.
Members of our community, including Founder Joyce Michaelson, President Wil Adkins, and Executive Director Lois Whipple – all of MFEE, work tirelessly on behalf of our students and schools. Without their activism, transformative school-community initiatives simply would not be possible.
Our civic partners, too, have played a major role in our ongoing progress. I thank Mayor Robert Jackson and Township Council, BOE President David Deutsch and Board members, the Civil Rights Commission and so many others. We are extremely fortunate to have as our neighbors and champions passionate leaders who understand the priority we set in building excellent public schools. Without their support many of these advances simply would not have occurred.
All of us in the community stand united for our love of Montclair and our great public schools. This single common thread will always unite us. Still a great deal of work remains. We will continue to update you on our successes and will also ask for your help and input. I deeply believe we can solve any issue by being open to a diversity of thoughts and by truly listening to one another.
In the coming year we want to see and hear from you; let us know what we can do to assist you. Every school principal and Central Service staff joins me in inviting you to continue to participate in the strong relationships we have built.
We value your engagement. In fact, we count on it.
Penny E. MacCormack