South Orange Middle Parents and Students Challenge Administrators Over Non-Tenure Choice
Parents meet with administration to find out why the contracts of two popular teachers were not renewed but talk centers on the process rather than reasons.
Correction: Two Board of Education members, Bill Gaudelli and Andrea Wren-Hardin, attended the morning meeting. The remaining members attended the evening meeting. Our apologies for the error.
Updated: The second Monday meeting saw about 75 -- standing room only -- parents and students gather for a two-hour meeting. Seven of nine Board of Education members were in the audience.
Patch will have a full report on the Monday evening meeting later today.
Earlier this spring, Brian Osborne, the district’s superintendent of schools, traveled to Trenton to push for controversial tenure reform that would change the ways teachers are graded, earn and keep tenure. It’s an issue being debated across the country, but is particularly heated in New Jersey where the state is testing a new evaluation model, and legislation is pending to change an arcane system once designed to protect teachers from random firing but now provides lifetime job security.
“It’s time to reform tenure now,” said Osborne, in support of the legislation being sponsored by Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee. Quoted in NorthJersey.com, Osborne said he feared the work designing the bill and improving teacher evaluations “will die on the vine if the legislation is not passed, and we let the moment slip away.”
Those teacher evaluations are at the heart of the local debate in South Orange and Maplewood schools, where the superintendent is now embroiled in what seems a perennial rite of spring over public discontent over the decisions regarding teacher evaluations submitted by school principals – particularly those teachers who have not yet earned tenure. This season has been especially contentious with the non-renewal of two popular middle school social studies teachers at South Orange Middle.
Parents heard two slim possibilities on Monday morning that either Osborne (by resolution) or the district’s Board of Education (after a hearing) could decide to rehire the teachers.
One parent expressed hope that Osborne’s views on the issue could “evolve” in much the same way as President Obama’s on same-sex marriage – especially in light of what the superintendent has since learned about the caliber of the teachers from both students and parents, neither who were part of the evaluation process.
On Monday morning, Osborne met for more than two hours with about 40 parents. While the conversation covered how teachers are evaluated and outlined the process for appeals, the meeting was notable for its lack of specifics.
“The district is muzzled by the confidentiality law,” Osborne said, later reiterating, “We can not divulge our rationale to you.”
Much of the public outcry has included pleas that the decision be changed. If the teachers follow through with appeals, they would have the opportunity to convince the BOE to reverse the superintendent’s recommendation during a process known as a “Donaldson Hearing." And for the first time, Osborne said on Monday that he also could rehire the teachers by presenting a resolution to the Board of Education.
The lack of specifics is frustrating for parents and middle school students who have petitioned, written letters, and protested the non-renewal of contracts for Steven Cohen and Kathleen McCort, teachers who they credit for turning students on to social studies and preparing them for the rigors of high school history, where a record number of ninth-grade students, many their former students, have been selected for advanced placement in U.S. History.
It’s possible that more information could come to light if the teachers request the superintendent’s written statement for reasons for the non-renewal, which is the first step in the appeals process. The superintendent said he could not comment on whether such a request has been made, and while it is widely believed by parents that the teachers have appealed, that has not been confirmed.
But even if the teachers share the superintendent's statement with the public, it is unlikely to satisfy the demand for full disclosure on how the teachers were rated on an evaluation rubric that relies, in part, on classroom observation that rates specific performance standards for effective teaching.
Not everything that goes into making the decision would be included in the superintendent’s statement. Osborne described such statements as “pithy” and “not an exhaustive explanation.”
The outcry from the community over the non-renewals is particularly strong given the popularity of the teachers who were evaluated by a first-year principal. Joseph Uglialoro stepped in at a critical juncture as the district adopted plans to de-level academic classes and begins an international baccalaureate program.
The principal, Osborne said, “has my unequivocal support.”
“The first year has been filled with a lot of change,” some large and some small, Uglialoro said on Monday morning. “All those changes have brought different levels of stress to the community.”
South Orange Middle is among the schools the state has identified as Focus Schools that have the largest in-school achievement gap (also included are Maplewood Middle and Clinton Elementary). The state plans to target these schools for additional training or programs to address the specific shortcomings.
Last week, the state Department of Education released the school report cards. Data from the NJASK show students at SOMS generally scoring lower than students in comparable districts and across the state in both language arts and math.
“There are great challenges in front us,” Uglialoro said.
Meanwhile, students continue to protest. On Sunday night they once again plastered the Central Office with posters demanding that the teachers remain on their jobs, this time adding their pink detention slips from previous protests among the flyers. Their handiwork had been removed by the time parents began arriving for the Monday morning meeting.