Letter to the SOMSD Board

Over the past two years. I have observed a district that has accomplished some important goals but have fallen well short on others.  The district has stabilized much of the district administration, passed a bond issue to prevent aging buildings from leaking and collapsing and has met their required legal obligations. The district has met most if not all of its fiduciary responsibilities.

Unfortunately, the district has not fulfilled its most important and basic requirement:  caring for and protecting the most vulnerable of its citizens.  It is actually much stronger than this; let me rephrase this:  the district has abandoned the most vulnerable of its children.

I was watching the Daily Show the other day and Trevor Noah stated that when white and/or affluent children act out, they are “depressed”; when economically disadvantaged and/or students of color act out, they are “disruptive”. 

Let’s see how this plays out at Columbia High School.  Look at the cost and the demographics of student services.  Look at the students in ESS (4 full time clinicians),  classified students receiving support in honors and AP courses (6+ full time teachers), students in out-of-district placements (millions of dollars), the CAP program (2 FTE teachers).  There are two full time social workers for classified students; for regular ed students:  zero.

We have two inordinately high risk populations:  stressed out kids who are falling apart and kids who are failing due to being simply abandoned.  We were described this way by the regional director of ESS:  “Of the 45+ schools over 3 states, including some therapeutic schools, yours is the sickest”.  We have more and more kids who are depressed, self-harming, anxious and suicidal.  My job has largely become keeping kids alive and that is truly alarming. 

I did an exercise with the students, asking them to communicate with their parents about something they want to tell them.  Virtually all the responses were the same:  we are stressed out and you are making it worse.  We are part of a society that is pushing kids too soon, too fast and too hard.  We need to ameliorate the effects of this, not make it worse.  The district needs to take the foot off the gas and be on the forefront of promoting student health.

The other population is the ignored population.  It seems as if we are following the antiquated notion that only those who can help themselves are worthy of help.  We have dedicated three full time staff to reducing class size in the STEM areas and provide STEM tutoring (recently expanded to language arts), but not one dime into effectively overseeing attendance.  We have no resources whatsoever for struggling ESL families or for kids who do not learn effectively in a traditional classroom.  We have an amazing guidance staff who are working tirelessly to help students- but they cannot do it alone.

There is a total lack of vision, oversight and thoughtfulness in what we do.   There are two major things that need to be addressed and we are only addressing the consequences without addressing the causes.  We do virtually nothing for those students who are most vulnerable:  those who are economically and educationally disadvantaged.  They are failing and cutting classes and school at an alarming rate and we treat it as a behavioral issue rather than a poverty issue.  Counselors are doing their best to work with kids but there are virtually ZERO resources to deal with the causes:  no alternate program for kids who do not learn in a traditional manner, no social workers to work with families in crisis or students who have little structure or oversight at home, no deans to catch problems before they become failures and crises, no transportation for kids who need to walk almost 2 miles in sub-freezing temperatures, sleet and snow. 

The other group are the strivers who are falling off the treadmill.  We treat these kids with resources and understanding.  We treat these kids’ issues as medical rather than behavioral.  But we do NOTHING to address the causes.  We have no discussions about how to make school meaningful, how to reduce the pressure and stress, how to ameliorate rather than buy into a very unhealthy societal message that we need to push kids too soon, too hard and too fast.

We had 2 true suicide attempts that would have resulted in death if they were not found, in a WEEK.  We had a sixth grader kill himself.  We have over a dozen students who have not been to school all year because of mental health issues.  We send multiple kids out every week for suicidal ideation and mental breakdowns.  This is a mental health crisis and we are really stuck in blaming the victim instead of necessary and purposeful introspection of what we are doing.  It is as if our house is burning and we are continually adding more fuel to the fire. 

I love what Marcia Hicks is doing with SLAM tutoring and the MAC program.  She gets hundreds of kids to live up to their potential with a powerful motivational program.  She gives many students hope and faith in themselves.  But what about the kids who aren’t in MAC?  What about kids who could not even conceive of joining MAC.

It’s as if these kids are invisible.  They walk miles in the sleet during the winter from areas such as the Seth Boyden area, with no thought on the district’s part what a hardship this is.  Not one of us would ever walk that far in these conditions and we expect our students to every day.  We have a factory model of education, with bells coming directly from the end of shifts in the early 20th century.  When there are kids who can’t thrive in this environment, kids who are not motivated by grades or threatened by loss of credit, our response is to threaten them, not support them as we do with more affluent kids.

These students deserve better.  They need social workers to help with the entire families who have hardships we can barely imagine; they need alternate programs that make them care about learning and their place in the world; they need genuine career training; they need the ability to come to school warm and dry; they need deans who will oversee and improve their non-academic life; they need a drastic change in curriculum.

The curriculum is not thoughtful, forward thinking or imaginative.  There are no small learning communities, no themes, no strands.  At other schools I have worked there were sequences in STEM, engineering, architecture, civics and government, social justice, environmental awareness, health care, food services, auto repair, carpentry.  At CHS, almost none.  Social studies, outside of electives, should be one of our most exciting curricula, an opportunity for students for social awareness and action.  Instead, it is a regressive mush of irrelevant facts and memorization.  We have no science labs.  Let that sink in.  In 2020.

The morale of the teachers is low.  They need to be included in more of the decision making and need to no longer be seen as an opposition force. 

We have accepted mediocrity for far too long.  It is time for this board and this community to rethink its priorities and begin a ground up revision of everything we do.

Proposals

-Courtesy busing for students who need to walk a long way to school whose parents cannot drive them.  A huge part of our tardiness and absence rate is weather related and is preventable.  We could seek grant funding for this or use grant funding we already have.

-A social worker who speaks Creole and Spanish to work with the regular education population.  Our first generation students, particularly those of Haitian descent, are really struggling.  We also have many students, particularly many of our students of color and students who are economically disadvantaged, that need much more family support than we are providing.

-A dean of climate and culture who is highly trained in restorative practice.  The mandate would be to prevent absences, suspensions and failures.

-An in-house alternate program.  I would like to organize a visit to Camden Big Picture Academy, a truly model alternate program (http://camdencitybpla.ss12.sharpschool.com/news___events/announcements/welcome_back_c_b_p_l_a_) with central office and high school personnel.  I would like your assistance in arranging this.

-Regular data analytics shared with all administrators, teachers, parents and the community on trends month-to-month on attendance, discipline and grading.  Reports on the number of students receiving D’s or F’s and students with excessive absences broken down by free/reduced lunch status, gender, race, teacher, and department.  This should be shared publicly and addressed openly. 

-A commitment to engaging programs to assist students:  A SAM program for the language arts (done); a freshman experience course with AVID components; a work study program for students to get monitored and assisted work experience and work-study credits; a 21-century CTE curriculum with programs like cyber-security, data analytics or supply chain operations. 

-In-house training for students not attending college, such as providing course work to become a home health care aid.  We should develop a robust program to give students marketable skills in the workforce.

-Four high school I&RS/504 teams, each with an administrator, 2-3 counselors, a SAC, a CST member and a teacher (done).

-Daily homerooms with a weekly extended homeroom advisory period.

-9th grade “clusters” which model middle school teams or houses.

-Creation of thematic small learning communities.

-Closed lunch for freshmen.

-Mentoring program for parents of first generation students.

-A requirement that all supervisors document a minimum of 20 walk-throughs a week.

Author: Scott White

I am a nationally recognized expert on college admissions, having worked in schools and colleges for 35 years. I have been regularly quoted in major publications including the NY Times, the LA Times, The Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly, Time Magazine and others. I am widely published on various aspects of the college admissions process and present at state and national conferences on a variety of college admissions related topics. I have worked in college admissions as well as independent day and boarding schools. The last 25 years I have worked in public schools, 14 as a school counselor and then as a Director of Guidance at elite, suburban public schools including Montclair High School, Westfield High School and Morristown High School. I am now an independent college counselor for SW College Consulting in Montclair. I can be contacted as swcollegeconsulting@gmail.com or 973-919-6798.

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