MONTCLAIR, NJ – About 175 people filled the Unitarian Universalist Congregation's sanctuary in Montclair on Sunday afternoon to express concerns over the PARCC Assessment. The audience made up of educators, community leaders and concerned citizens gathered to hear from a cadre of sitting school board members and an educational expert.

Entitled 'Protecting Our Schools: Local New Jersey School Board Members Speak Up!', the spirited symposium rounded up a diverse array of voices from across the state of New Jersey. One voice in particular, was that of Bloomfield Board of Education member Dan Anderson, who was most celebrated for his Board of Education's recent decision to allow parents to 'opt-out' of standardized testing.

At the top of the program, each school board member in attendance stated that they were speaking as individuals and not as representatives of their respective school boards.  The gathering reflected that of a who's who in education with Assistant Superintendents, Principals, Board Members from other communities, and various educators from across the state. Audience members representing Ridgewood, Jersey City, Newark, Paterson, South Orange, Montclair and many other communities were present to express their concerns over the PARCC Assessment. 

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Michelle Fine opened with a welcome address speaking of the challenges with administering the PARCC Assessment, including the delayed data reporting. “It is very important that data be accurate…If not, what we get is public trust is shattered.” She then spoke to the Board of Education members on the panel and said, “We understand that you do not speak for your boards.” Fine spoke of the ongoing issue surrounding the issue that the district is having over the paraprofessionals being paid one day less than their teaching counterparts. Fine also spoke of the challenges board members face in complying with the law in their official capacity and living up to their own personal feelings and moral values. “We want to create a space for dialogue. We so appreciate your willingness to open a difficult dialogue.”

Fine expressed that the forum was co-sponsored with Montclair Cares About Schools, Saving Our Schools, Bloomfield Board of Education, Highland Park Cares about schools.

The panel consisted of Dr. Chris Tienken, Associate Professor at Seton Hall University, Newark Board of Education member Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, Highland Park Board of Education member Darcie Cimarusti, Montclair Board of Education member Jessica de Koninck, South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education member Johanna Wright and Bloomfield Board of Education member Anderson.

Tienken, a former public school administrator and co-author of ‘The School Reform Landscape: Fraud, Myth and Lies’, opened saying “The argument that all these standardized reforms…rest on pillars of sand….” Tienken spoke of districts and states such as Highland Park, Bloomfield, Newark, Oregon, Palm Beach County, Texas that fought back over testing. He further added that ‘one-size-fits-all curriculum standards’ seeks to homogenize education. “Local school boards have been reduced to state adopted polices.” He added, “Testing is not learning. Test preparation is not teaching.”

“High school GPA is a better predictor of college achievement and college success,” continued Tienken. “We can’t continue to standardize our teachers.” To a round of applause, Tienken continued, “Decisions of curriculum and instruction should remain a board decision.” Tienken closed saying, “Boards of Education must recognize bad policy and advocate on behalf of children.”

Antionette Baskerville-Richardson shared her experience serving on the Newark School Board. She spoke on the challenges she faces serving in a state takeover district where her decision-making capacity as a board member is limited. She said, “all hiring, firing….district and school budgets…bussing are not the responsibility of the board.” She then admonished Superintendent Cami Anderson for not attending a regular School Board Meeting in approximately 6 months.

“State control is personified by State Superintendent Anderson and the Governor.” Baskerville-Richardson told the audience that some class sizes exceed 40 students and that the Zuckerberg money was a myth. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to the Newark Public Schools in 2010. She told the audience, “There was no Zuckerberg money. It wasn’t money, it was stock. Although an initial $1 million dollars was spent to settle the teacher’s contract and bonuses… and they donated bookbags.” “The Alliance for Newark public schools represents 30 organizations.”Baskerville-Richardson spoke of a growing movement in Newark and warned audience members that their communities could be next.  “Our job is to organize, resist and educate all of the people we can see and reach. These are the components of building our movement.” Baskerville likened the challenges in education reform to the civil rights movement. “We cannot be discouraged.”

Baskerville-Richardson encouraged the audience to “look at the Nov. 3, 2013 Time Magazine article,” to support her theory of what may be happening in education. “These are national issues. It is important that we come together like this again and again and work together.”

de Koninck, an attorney who had a lengthy career working at the state department of education, said, “I believe that change is affected from within. There are states in this country that had no standards.” She spoke of the need for some sort of standards to ensure that students in various states are exposed to the same quality curriculum. “If you move from New Jersey to Texas, you shouldn’t have to make huge changes in what you are learning. There’s some merit to standards.” She added, “It is our obligation to make sure that each of our children get the quality education that they deserve. If we had data about the children who attended from preschool to high school, then we still might have preschool in Montclair.  What is the purpose of the test? To inform instruction?” de Koninck has written policy for 30 years and added that she sees the value in standardized testing and universal national standards. “We’re not talking about anything new.”

Wright, a Montclair High School graduate and retired South Orange school teacher, said, “Many of the things that are happening today are self-inflicted.” She spoke of the changes in education and expressed her concerns over the direction that she feels education is going. “It’s not that you have to go out and do the big things, but a lot of little things. If someone is doing something to you, you have to keep telling until someone listens.”

Darcie Cimarusti used humor and quick witted commentary to describe her passion for education. She also shared how she became a board of education member and she spoke of her blog, ‘Mother Crusader’. She opened saying, “Standardized tests don’t help kids learn.” Cimarusti added, “If I feel that a recommendation that is being made is not in the best interest of children and teachers, then I’m going to vote no.” She encouraged the audience to stand up for what they believe in. “It is incumbent upon board members like ourselves…”

When Anderson spoke, he was loudly applauded for his board’s decision to allow parents to opt-out of standardized testing. He said, “Issues of common core and high stakes testing need to be discussed and addressed. In my opinion one of the best ways to bring issues to the forefront is through resolutions and discussions like this one.”

Also in attendance as audience members were countless community and education leaders from around the state including Mayor Robert Jackson, Deputy Mayor Robert Russo, Councilor Robin Schlager, Councilor Sean Spiller, Councilor Renee Baskerville, MEA President Gayl Shepherd, Principal Mike Childs from Montclair Public Schools, Irvington Asst. Supt. and former Montclair Board of Education Member Dr. Angelica Allen, Montclair Board of Education member David Cummings, Montclair Board of Education member Ann Mernin, Newark Board of Education President Rashon Hasan, South Orange Board of Education member Wayne Eastman.

Stan Karp, taught English and Journalism in Paterson for 30 years and now serves as the Director of the Secondary Reform Project of the Education Law Center, addressed the audience with closing remarks. He spoke on new High School graduation policies that "would make a connection between high school graduation and the PARCC Assessment." He continued, "The new PARCC tests that are coming to high schools next spring include 6 new high school tests." Karp explained the Language Arts PARCC for 9-11 grade and the end of course exams for Algebra 1, 2, and 3. "The PARCC test has two parts, a performance part that's given sometime in April and an end of year test that's given sometime in May." He further explained that graduating seniors would have to pass the PARCC Assessment exam in Language Arts and another in Math "in order to get a high school diploma."

A spirited discussion with audience members ensued and next steps were discussed. Guests expressed eagerness to learn how to continue the discussion across New Jersey school districts.

The forum concluded with questions and additional comments from the audience. A brief video shown at the event is located below. 

As a follow-up, participants were urged to attend the next event on Sunday, November 9 at 3pm at the Pine Street Firehouse on 11 Pine Street entitled, 'Take the PARCC'. Participants are encouraged to bring their own laptops to take a mock PARCC Assessment test. 

For more information, visit Montclair Cares About Schools at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Montclair-Cares-About-Schools/151421161685482.