Teacher Chooses Private Donaldson Hearing; Parents Rally Support
Steven Cohen has chosen a private hearing on Weds.
Eighth grade Social Studies teacher Steven Cohen has chosen a private Donaldson hearing. The South Orange Middle School teacher has a hearing scheduled for Weds., July 18, at 6:30 p.m. at the Board of Education building. After the hearing, the Board must notify Cohen within three days whether they will uphold the decision not to rehire and tenure him, or if they will overturn principal Joseph Uglialoro's decision and retain Cohen.
In anticipation of the hearing, parents, students and colleagues who support Cohen are expected to attend the Monday, July 16 Board of Education meeting or otherwise contact Board of Education members. Speakers who support Cohen and colleague Kathleen McCort have spoken passionately at recent meetings. McCort, who also taught eighth grade Social Studies at SOMS, was similarly let go from the district in her tenure year, a decision upheld by the Board of Education at her June Donaldson hearing.
Throughout the final weeks of school, when students demonstrated against the principal's decision, including a day-long walk out, some parents were vocally frustrated by the decision to eliminate both teachers in one discipline in the same grade.
"This decision means nobody teaching eighth grade Social Studies in the fall will be experienced with our school, this curriculum, these students, unless the Board overturns," said Amy Roth, parent. "To me, it's absurd to put our kids, an entire grade, through a 'learning curve' year while the teachers get to know the place."
Likewise, parents have begun to wonder aloud about the coming school year. "The principal had almost no control last year," said Roth. "I think we gave him the benefit of the doubt, but no more blank checks. He couldn't even keep the kids in class, so I'm worried."
In May, Uglialoro and Superintendent Brian Osborne met with members of the SOMA Home-School Association. After that meeting, the HSA released a statement that noted the members' awareness of "the climate at SOMS." The late spring was marked by student protest actions, posters and flyers in the hallways, and students wearing t-shirts bearing messages of support for their teachers.
The students who walked out will be served detention time over the four-day weekend, but they said their protest was worth the punishment. Their efforts continue on online social media sites, where students have posted video of their protest on YouTube, MR. COHEN & MS. MCCORT 2012, with a hand-written introduction, “This is our time.”
The superintendent said he stands firmly behind his choice. “I want to assure the SOMS community that Joe Uglialoro has my full and unequivocal support as Principal of South Orange Middle School,” the superintendent said in his statement.
“I recognize that some community members are upset with the recent personnel decisions. We have heard your feedback, and take it very seriously,” Osborne’s statement says. “We may not always agree on specific decisions, but I know we are all committed to setting our students up for success, and giving them the challenges and the support they need to achieve their fullest potential. We all agree that effective teaching is essential in this journey.”
At the same time, planned middle school restructuring will begin in the fall. The international baccalaureate program will be phased in over several years and the district has recently been advertising to hire IB Instructional Coaches. These are new positions, added during the March budget season, according to the school spokeswoman Suzanne Turner. “They do not replace the social studies teacher positions, or any other staff positions.”
"This has been an incredibly eventful year at SOMS," Uglialoro told the executive committee of the HSA according to notes of the meeting provided by the district.
"It has been marked by both first and second order changes – each intended to move this school from good to exceptional, and in doing so ensure that every one of our students is prepared for success in high school and beyond," the principal said. "In one way or another, those changes have put stress on our school community, and all of the stakeholders who participate in it.
Marilyn Lehren contributed significant reporting.