Letter to BOE from departing CHS Interim Head of Guidance: District is failing its most vulnerable

A depressing take on CHS from the inner workings, and some interesting proposals:

https://villagegreennj.com/schools-kids/south-orange-maplewood-responds-to-departing-guidance-heads-charge-that-district-is-failing-most-vulnerable/

In April, Scott White, the Interim Head of Guidance at Columbia High School, departed after nearly two years on the job. As he left the district, White penned a letter to the Board of Education that was not intended for community distribution; however, the letter has been widely distributed and discussed.

[more on Village Green]

Letter By Scott White:

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/…/welcome_back_c…) 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.


I would love to hear from the BOE on this.  But they will never have the guts to publicly respond.


yahooyahoo said:

I would love to hear from the BOE on this.  But they will never have the guts to publicly respond.

The Village Green link includes a statement from Taylor and the BOE.


Village Green has this article behind a paywall, and i didn't find anything about the BOE statement at the district website.  Anybody care to summarize, to satisfy my idle expat curiosity?  

Meanwhile, stunned to read in the letter that there are no longer science labs at CHS?  Is this true?? Exaggerated?  Are the labs physically there but not in use, or ripped out at some point?


mjc said:

Village Green has this article behind a paywall, and i didn't find anything about the BOE statement at the district website.  Anybody care to summarize, to satisfy my idle expat curiosity?  

Meanwhile, stunned to read in the letter that there are no longer science labs at CHS?  Is this true?? Exaggerated?  Are the labs physically there but not in use, or ripped out at some point?

Yes, they cut labs a few years ago.  Not sure what they did with the physical spaces. 


Scott White and yahooyahoo say there are no science labs. The 2020-21 CHS course guide includes these descriptions:

Biology: ... Students will master the content through a variety of experiences including laboratories, simulations, projects, research and other activities.

Physics: ... Laboratory experiences are used extensively.

Chemistry: ... Through extensive use of the laboratory, students will explore the structure and properties of matter and how atoms are arranged to form different substances in chemical reactions.

So that’s confusing.


I see some MOL comments from April and November that also say labs were eliminated. Maybe the course descriptions are outdated or using a loose definition of what constitutes lab work.


I asked my high schooler if he had any labs (in the "before times") for Biology class. He indicated that they did some "activities" (like cutting up beets) but these were not called "Labs". They had not done a dissection, but were shown the dissected rats that the AP Bio class had performed. (He described it as "smelly" which brought me back to the formaldehyde odor of the frog dissections of my own HS years).


mjc said:

Village Green has this article behind a paywall, and i didn't find anything about the BOE statement at the district website.  Anybody care to summarize, to satisfy my idle expat curiosity?  

Meanwhile, stunned to read in the letter that there are no longer science labs at CHS?  Is this true?? Exaggerated?  Are the labs physically there but not in use, or ripped out at some point?

Yes, sadly true.  The District said it was due to the budget but if you can’t have any experiments in “honor’s” chemistry all you are left with is rote memorization.  There may have been labs in AP Chemistry but my kid took 3 APs junior year and did not want to take 4.


I think they may have gotten rid of longer double periods that allowed real  lab time?  Not sure, and wanting to understand better whether what we do in science is aligned with the experience offered in other districts. (Probably a topic that belongs in it own thread, as Mr. White’s comments on guidance are important and dire.)


True, sorry to have gone down the lab path and ignored the rest of the letter.  Sorry to say, while the absence of labs struck me as different since our guys graduated (2003, 2005), the parts about guidance and student support didn't seem new.

And it makes some sense that they would eliminate the double periods.  They were an additional stumbling block in scheduling.


The double period for labs allowed for two benefits: first, teachers had a 90 minute lab which allowed for safety, especially in chemistry, and second, allowed students to actually collect data, understand how to take reliable measurements, and look at data results variations -- how did results cluster, what measurements were "off" and which were reasonable.

The curriculum says labs are part of the deal, but it is very difficult to actually run them safely with meaningful results.

The drop of the lab section was primarily for cost reasons, not scheduling. Most kids in Bio, Physics and Chem had the extra lab session at the same time as PE. PE teachers did not like having this and when costs became a big issue in the District, labs were dropped as were the credits from 6 to 5 reflecting the reduced number of periods.

We can look at the World we will live in and I believe ALL of us and ALL of the BOE members should get rid of the BS idea that making things like robots, or woodworking, or knowing how to code is consigning kids to trade schools. As I have said many times, the District has taken the position of underfunding these courses and clubs. Now we have US President who knows precisely zero about science. How do we respond to that when we as a District  cuts labs, demeaning science in fact.


AllanT said:

We can look at the World we will live in and I believe ALL of us and ALL of the BOE members should get rid of the BS idea that making things like robots, or woodworking, or knowing how to code is consigning kids to trade schools. As I have said many times, the District has taken the position of underfunding these courses and clubs.

Your POV resonated with me when I was reviewing course options with my rising high schooler. While my older prefers traditional courses with a college-bound approach, my younger is likely to be more attracted to hands-on and vocational-type courses. The options for the latter seem very limited at CHS as you note. 

And the other options for vocational schools in NJ are -- unclear -- and vary by county. CHS doesn't seem to encourage attending the Newark-based Essex vocational schools as much as suggest applying for the few slots in the Union county vocational schools available to Essex students. And the county vocational schools vary in terms of what is offered, and the criteria for admission. It seems unlikely that most of those who would benefit from more vocational preparation are able to find it. 

While Scott White's critique did indicate a lack of in-house training for students not attending college, I found his only example (course work to become a home health care aid) a bit odd.


Some items to consider:

1) at this time there is only one teacher whose course load is CAD, and engineering - Mr Brauner. Check what he did with the production of Intubation boxes.

2) when the CHS Robotics Club was the State Champions in 2011 and repeated in 2013 the school started a robotics course in Mr Brauner's classroom. He and I taught the different sections. The school dropped the course after two years the course ended.

3) for those newish in SOMA the entire ground floor of D-wing was "voc-ed" - carpentry, auto shop, and other similar courses. It took me over 7 years as Robotics club advisor to get one half of the one third of the old auto shop for Robotics clubroom. Two-thirds of the old auto shop is now the Loft. Our one half share of one third competed with the Custodians. 

4) it took longer to get complete control of the one third of the old auto shop. Since then almost everything in that room the Club raised the funds - lab desks, 3D printers, router, sanders, vacuum cleaner, drill press, and so on. The District paid for several lab tables. The club painted the room and did a lot to make it a real lab. We raised well over $10k over the years for that purpose. 

5) the NJDOE allows what is called Option 2 unders their rules for granting academic credit. When I was the advisor we were able to have more than a dozen students get credit for robotics on a pass/fail basis. 

6) back in 2013 the District proposed a grand realignment of space in CHS which would have restored D-wing ground floor to z true lab-oriented area with robotics, 3D printing, coding, engineering and so on. Faculty killed the plan.

7) the Robotics Club is one of US FIRST's "bedrock" teams and designated the club as the host school for the state championship. In 2019 we hosted 48 teams and this year it was supposed to be 56 teams. The new robotics advisor had everything set (she is terrific, but not a faculty member so chance for Option 2) and then the COVID shutdown.

I wish to repeat the District has failed to understand that if students do not learn how to make things and understand coding, we will fail them. Their future, like it or not, will include dealing with coding, robots, autonomous cars, and all of the kinds of work in genetics, biochem, nd so on.

Remember, the State of NJ unemployment office systems are based on COBOL which was designed over a half century ago. There are very few COBOL programmers left.  


How do you do science without labs?  Isn’t that the whole point of science?  Don’t live in MSO anymore but my freshman has a double science lab period.  As for vocational, I think that sort of thing is great.  My son is taking machinery and design, which is what we called Shop, and he loves it.  


sprout said:

Your POV resonated with me when I was reviewing course options with my rising high schooler. While my older prefers traditional courses with a college-bound approach, my younger is likely to be more attracted to hands-on and vocational-type courses. The options for the latter seem very limited at CHS as you note. 

And the other options for vocational schools in NJ are -- unclear -- and vary by county. CHS doesn't seem to encourage attending the Newark-based Essex vocational schools as much as suggest applying for the few slots in the Union county vocational schools available to Essex students. And the county vocational schools vary in terms of what is offered, and the criteria for admission. It seems unlikely that most of those who would benefit from more vocational preparation are able to find it. 

While Scott White's critique did indicate a lack of in-house training for students not attending college, I found his only example (course work to become a home health care aid) a bit odd.

 I would love to see more vocational training, either without, or in conjunction with college.  There will always be a demand for mechanics, plumbers, electricians.  These are jobs that are stable, can’t be outsourced and are high paying.  


We should look at Bergan County.  they have great vocational.


AllanT said:

The drop of the lab section was primarily for cost reasons, not scheduling. Most kids in Bio, Physics and Chem had the extra lab session at the same time as PE. PE teachers did not like having this and when costs became a big issue in the District, labs were dropped as were the credits from 6 to 5 reflecting the reduced number of periods.

This is exactly the problem, and it goes back to the emphasis on standardized testing that we have had for so many years.  When I was in middle school and high school, in the late '70s and early '80s, we had labs that were not "extra lab sessions", but just part of the regular class period.  There were a lot of them, from SCIS type stuff in 5th and 6th grade, to dissecting frogs in 7th grade and fetal pigs in 9th grade, to hands on chemistry in 10th grade and 12th grade AP Chem which prepared me very well for freshman Chemistry at RPI since I had already done the same lab and calculated the results in high school.  

My guess is that these things can't be done within the standard classroom time today because of the standardized tests and the teachers who need to rely on rote memorization to get their students to pass, rather than to give them real world experience through a hands-on lab environment.  As a society we need to rethink this approach.


Add masks+ 6 feet apart+ A/B schedules,+ cafeteria and masks + social distancing among peers = hell in a hand basket. Get ready for the first 50+ teachers to get sick and hit REWIND! God bless us!




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