School Board Meeting Attendees Question Montgomery Educators’ Trip to South Africa
By Anna Reinalda | Posted January 2, 2023
Questions arose regarding a Montgomery School District trip to Cape Town, South Africa, where school leaders plan to attend a conference hosted by the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) and Rutgers University next month. One Montgomery resident asks what the conference would do to benefit Montgomery. Others said the SADTU is affiliated with Communism.
School leaders say the goal is for Montgomery educators to lend insight to help revive South Africa’s struggling school system. Superintendent Mary E. McLoughlin explained at the December 13 school board meeting that most of the funding for the trip does not come from Montgomery taxpayers, but from the South Africa teachers union.
Some parents were not satisfied with this answer, or with Montgomery school district educators attending the conference. They asked for a more in-depth overview of the purpose for the trip at the Montgomery School Board meeting on Tuesday, January 3 at 7:30 p.m. in the Montgomery Lower Middle School Cafeteria located at 373 Burnt Hill Road, Skillman. (Live stream link.)
The South Africa trip is related to a pilot effort on school reform based on research by Rutgers faculty member Saul Rubinstein, who examined cases of school reform that resulted from collaborative partnerships between teachers' unions and administrators working together in innovative ways to improve teaching quality and student performance.
Montgomery educators joined Rutgers LEARN and the Center for the Study of Collaboration in Work and Society recently to meet a group of educators from the South African Democratic Teachers Union. The delegation came to NJ to learn more about the Collaborative School Leadership Initiative led by Rutgers professor and LEARN instructor, Saul Rubinstein. The delegation also visited NJ schools — including the Montgomery Township School District — which is participating in the collaborative. SADTU is the largest teachers union in South Africa with 250,000 members.
Charles Horn of Skillman said during the public comment session that SADTU has a “quick link” on its website that displays a graduation cap with a hammer and sickle logo. The Montgomery News did locate a link to Communist University that displayed a graduation cap with a sickle and hammer on the SADTU website. The link, however, was broken.
Horn primarily questioned a link to the website of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and to the Congress of South African Trade Unions. The link goes to a speech given by the SACP to South Africa Teachers Union stating "Together, let us build a powerful, socialist movement of the workers and poor."
The other link cites socialism and teachers unions, and mentions the following goals: “Better life and human dignity for all workers,” “Better wages and working conditions for all workers,” and “Job security for all workers.”
President Spence-Wallace said the board did not have information on these claims, and that Rutgers University researchers assigned to the trip, Saul Rubinstein and Charles Kushner, would look into it. Follow-up on the topic will be provided at the January 3 meeting, she said.
Superintendent Mary McLoughlin responded that the benefit to Montgomery would be that attendees to the conference will be able to share their experiences with their fellow district members, and will create international collaboration.
“It’s not a political trip, it has nothing to do with politics. Kids are kids. It’s about instruction and learning. They’re looking for a better way to educate their students.”
— Superintendent Mary McLoughlin
High School Principal Heather Pino-Beattie and teacher Jen Jones gave an administration update, noting an emphasis on taking a collaborative approach to leadership within the school. Pino-Beattie pointed to a sea of green-and-gold clad high school faculty members in the audience and said: “The people you see behind me tonight, they’re all from the high school. They’re here to support what our leadership team is doing within our building.”
MHS offers extensive menu of AP courses & activities
Jones added the school is offering 54 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, along with more than 40 co-curricular programs. To help students navigate the diversity of choices, she said in 2021 they made refinements to an Add/Drop period to give students flexibility.
Pino-Beattie featured a new project in the works this year, which would bring a mandatory online financial literacy course to all tenth graders. The course would fulfill the financial literacy credit required by the state of New Jersey for all high school graduates. It will teach students to manage a budget, set up emergency funds, build retirement plans, and pay off debts.
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Graduation proficiency assessment
Stacey Young, Director of Equity, Data, and Accountability, presented the results of the first iteration of the New Jersey Graduation Proficiency Assessment (NJGPA), which was conducted in March 2022. The test is administered to high school juniors.
Because the test is in its first application, the results are being treated as experimental, and are evaluated on a pass/fail basis, Young said.
The results demonstrated 73 percent of MHS juniors were graduation ready-in the English/Language Arts category, and 90 percent in math.
Girls overall performed slightly better than boys, and Latino and white students performed significantly worse than their Asian peers.
The next iteration of this test will be conducted in March. Young’s presentation stirred a flurry of questions from the board.
Vice President Cookie Franco-Herman asked what the high school is doing to prepare students for college.
Pino-Beattie fielded the response, saying the first year of college is a stressful time for students. Montgomery does not aim to alleviate all stress from their students’ lives. Rather, the school strives to teach that stress management is an important skill for a new college student to develop. She emphasized that a student is not a failure for coming home after one semester of college. “I look at it as a strength when a student realizes they’ve chosen badly,” she said. The self-awareness necessary for a student to discover they’ve chosen the wrong school is a necessary and developmentally-appropriate aspect of young adulthood.
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Pino-Beattie also drew attention to New Jersey’s community colleges, which, she says, are heavily under utilized. One benefit of community colleges is that credits transfer seamlessly to four-year institutions with no evidence on the transcript. They also allow students who are unsure about leaving home to continue their education without taking a step they aren’t prepared for. Lastly, she said, they’re significantly less expensive than most four year colleges, which has two benefits. First, it makes college education more accessible to less-wealthy families, and second, it allows families to save money for higher degrees.
“We’re at a time when just a bachelor’s degree is not enough,” she postulated. “Masters’ are going to be a requirement.”
Noting that there are some community members who look down on community colleges, Pino-Beattie said the bad reputation is undeserved, and that “the stigma does not rest with the students,” but with the parents.
In her public comment, Montgomery resident Francine Pfeffer noted that in addition to the value of community colleges, vocational schools are another overlooked option for high school graduates. “Tradespeople make excellent salaries,” she said.
Farewell to Three Board Members
The meeting was the last one for board members Phyllis Bursch, Richard Specht, and Doug Herring, who were not re-elected in the November election.
Herring said his brief two-month tenure on the school board opened his eyes to the commitment of its members. “Thank you for all you do,” Herring said. “Because sitting [in the audience], people really don’t realize how much time and effort you all put into this. As parents, you don’t really know what the board of education does, or how much they do. “Discovering how passionate everyone is and how hard they work was inspiring.”
Specht has served multiple stints on the board of education, in various roles, including president at one point. Specht said: “I would like to thank our students. We’ve had some contentious issues over the last couple of years, and to hear our students come and speak at the board meeting about things that were important to them, and how they expressed themselves, how they organized their thoughts, was truly inspiring, and it makes you realize that we must be doing something right.”
Bursh, who served six years on the board, was the first African-American to serve as president of the Montgomery Board of Education.
“We have committed, talented, and amazing people working to make our school district better for those who matter: our students,” she said. “My goals have been to improve the schools, student life, and quality of education. My methods were multifaceted, I am not afraid to be the bad guy to move things forward, or to spend time listening to everyone’s ideas.”
“I want to thank those members who have worked with me throughout these six years, and I am proud to call you friends. You taught me how to become a better member, advocate, and person.”
Spence-Wallace presented the members whose terms expired in December with student-made plaques, reading: “The Montgomery Board of Education recognizes you for your dedicated service to the Montgomery school community. By word and deed your presence has enriched the lives of students and served as an example for all.”
To her colleagues Specht and Bursh, Spence-Wallace said: “We only dream to emulate your unique candor. You both inspire me to stick with this even in those moments when I wanted to give up, and I thank you for that.” ■