Name:  Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad
Age: 47
Town: South Orange
Current employment: Accenture
Past public service: SOMSD BOE 2013 - 2016, Bloomfield College Board of Trustees since 2013

What are your three top priorities for the school district if elected?

It starts with the basics.  It is clear that we need to improve our operational effectiveness across several key areas in order to ensure that on a basic level we are “getting it right” and “avoiding distractions” caused by avoidable missteps.  Areas of focus must include the hiring process and support services including special education.  We’ve enacted critical policies in the past few years including Athletics (6) and 504 (4) that when implemented will serve to shore up our operational practices.

We also need to continue the concerted effort to implement the Access and Equity policy enacted last year.  We are in the very early stages and are awaiting Administration to present a thorough implementation plan which we expect to address all elements necessary to ensure appropriate student support, a plan to expand our capacity to meet the demand while simultaneously working to ensure that all classrooms are meeting the needs of students and preparing our children for successful outcomes.

Finally, the Board will soon receive the Superintendent’s report from the Strategic Planning effort that has been underway since early this year. While I am excited to see the results and recognize the importance of having a cohesive vision for the future of our district, I will use my voice to insist that we take a realistic look at what is feasible in what timeframes. Most importantly, I will continue to make the case that we need to change the culture of our district so that all teachers “see” the children that sit before them and seek to uncover the innate potential in each and every one of them. We have many strengths to build on, but we also have too many students who are left by the wayside. In my view, the whole point of strategic planning is achieving a transformation that makes our district responsive to the needs of every child

How do you think Dr. John Ramos has done in his first year as superintendent? What could he do better?

South Orange Maplewood is not an easy district to run.  Dr. Ramos entered our district after one of the most challenging years we’ve faced in a decade.  To be fair, I think he’s done a solid job working to engage our community, working in support of equity and seeding a cultural transformation within the district.  

I appreciate how he has used the Strategic Planning process as a way to harness the insight, talent and enthusiasm we have on the staff and in the community to talk about how to do things differently, how to transform our district over time to be an even more exciting and engaging place for students. We need to educate students for a world that we can’t yet envision, playing roles and pursuing careers that don’t exist today. 

He pushed for the Access and Equity policy and worked to incorporate a broader view than originally scoped to ensure we are considering all students and all classrooms.  He has used that in a positive way to talk to his leadership team, other administrators and even staff members about the direction of the district.
Finally, he is working to bridge the gap with staff.  

One example is his attention to the teachers’ start-of-school year assembly and selection of guest speaker (former Assistant Superintendent Everett Kline). It was a significant statement from him to the staff – that he understands how hard their jobs are, how much is demanded of them, but how much more is possible. That is the sort of message that builds trust which in turn enables educational change.
So I like Dr. Ramos’s vision and the way he talks about it with parents and staff. Where we need to get better is what I spoke about above – operational effectiveness.

How should the district handle the PARCC testing in the future if it becomes more of a mandated requirement?

PARCC is already a mandated requirement in terms of the district’s obligation to conduct PARCC testing. And based on the latest State Board of Education decision, PARCC is becoming a graduation requirement in a few years, which means students will have to pass it or one of the other sets of standardized tests that are deemed acceptable alternatives to PARCC. 

The initial promise of Common Core Standards and PARCC was that it would not lead to a culture of test prep and that it would be aligned with the standards to actually measure year over year growth of students against these standards.  PARCC isn’t there yet in terms of alignment with what we actually teach at each grade level, in terms of the reliability of its scoring, in terms of its lack of usefulness as a guide to instruction. We either need to realize a cycle of continuous improvement for PARCC or New Jersey needs to find a less onerous and more effective test vehicle.

In any case, I do not think that PARCC scores (or any other test  scores) should be considered as part of teachers’ evaluations.  They are not a fair means of evaluating a teacher as they are so dependent on many factors outside a teacher’s control in a single year. 

I’m not opposed to standardized tests.  They are a reality of modern life, from college entrance to professional certifications.  To me it’s how we use these results that really matter.  They provide insight as to where we have bright spots and trouble areas allowing us to dig in on what’s going right and why and where we need to focus attention to turn things around.

And they shine a light on the fact that a school district may not be serving all of its students well, which is why so many progressive organizations originally supported the mandate of standardized tests and disaggregation of data under the No Child Left Behind Act. But they need to be standardized tests which provide some reasonable measure of what students have learned academically – that they can read and comprehend, that they can write, that they are competent young mathematicians. In spite of all the bad standardized tests we’ve seen over the years, I believe it’s possible to have better tests, to make them actually useful. And I think that is a more realistic approach than saying you want to abolish them.

How would you help the district improve its communication with the community?

Communication is a perennial issue in our district. Everyone runs for office promising to fix this and everyone fails to some degree. The problem of communication is not inventing some mechanism by which information is conveyed, it has to do with how each and every staff member and administrator engages with every parent. Improving that is a long-term process in which we are actively engaged. What we can do, through policy, is better define the standards for each form of contact between the district and parents.
Some of this will be addressed as the new website comes online over the next year. There is a very thorough effort to define each and every element of information that should be there, how frequently each element needs revision and which staff member is responsible for doing so. But our problems go beyond the website. What I’ve learned in my three years on the Board is that schools are complicated places. Parents are anxious, especially when things go wrong. We need to work a lot harder and the Board needs to better define – in policy – what is expected for each sort of message that goes out, from principals, from teachers and from central office. The Let’s Talk system has helped, but we need to take it to the next level.

How would you help improve the achievement gap?

I think we want to “reduce” the achievement gap rather than improve it. There are several things we can do, which I have worked hard on in my first term. First is the notion of a gap. The fact that statistically there is a difference in the average of white students’ test scores with the average of those of students of color, says absolutely nothing about the capacity and potential of any individual student. We need to start looking at each individual student, where they are right now and then see how much improvement they’ve achieved in a year’s time.

Secondly, we need to help teachers better understand how to relate to and engage with each and every student. This is not a issue limited just to students of color – parents of students with disabilities are forever struggling with the stigma and low expectations that many times attach to their children. But we know that students of color are all too often underestimated in what they can do. I have been the primary advocate on the Board for cultural competence training and I’m happy that some of it is starting to happen. But the problem of low expectations won’t be fixed by a few hours of training. 

Ultimately, it will take principals as effective instructional leaders coaching and motivating each and every teacher to look at their students and see the potential rather than the perceived deficits. Typically some staff in a building are more effective than others in relating to all students. A good educational leader will ensure the staff collaboration that makes every teacher better and raises the norm of what is possible. Doing all of that will certainly benefit students of color but ultimately will benefit all students.

How do you see racial issues in the district given the concerns by some African-American students at CHS that assigning a police officer to the school would have been a mistake?

I actively opposed the introduction of police officers into our secondary schools, armed or otherwise. Studies clearly indicate that minorities bear the brunt of aggressive enforcement by police in schools (see article). However the voices ringing out against this crossed all racial lines in our district - there was a very clear rejection of this approach.

What we need to focus on is shifting the overall climate in CHS to ensure that on a daily basis all adults in the building are promoting the values and culture of care, concern and compassion in the school.  This has already started with the administration and must push down to the teacher level and beyond to include all staff including building security.  There must be a concerted effort to see each child beyond their performance in the classroom or their missteps in the hallway on any given day and recognize them as complex beings with strengths, weakness and boundless potential.
We must also build on our greatest resource: the students. Get every one of them involved in identifying trouble when they see it; counseling each other to not break the rules in the first place; and to feel comfortable reporting bad behavior in advance or after knowledge of it has occurred. That is what the Restorative Justice program is all about. It is about building trust and respect. 

How would you handle the expected enrollment increases that are already sparking some overcrowding given the budget constraints that forced the cutting of 11 teaching positions?

The district has employed a consultant to look at all the options and report to the Board. We expect an interim report at the upcoming October meeting and then the Superintendent’s recommendation at the November meeting, with community engagement and feedback in the months after that. So pending the Board hearing the recommendations, I will refrain from speculating on the space issue for the time being.

The bigger question is how we survive over the long term in the face of costs growing faster than our local tax levy which is limited to a 2% per year increase. There is no magic bullet. We have to continue to find efficiencies in the delivery of existing programs. For example, by revisiting the structure of after-school programing in our district we have identified an under-tapped revenue source that will yield dividends in our next budget cycle.  

We have to expand our partnerships with outside entities, from Seton Hall, to Bloomfield College (where I’m a trustee), to non-profits providing grants to a bigger and stronger local Achieve Foundation.

And in the long term, as we work to improve the instructional leadership of our principals and program leaders, I hope we can increase hiring of early career teachers, providing them effective mentoring, support, and training to set them up for success. This will diversify our spread across the salary guide, bringing down our biggest single cost - salaries, while increasing our exposure to the innovation of the next generation of teachers.

What is your position on contracting out services vs. in-district staffing?

I am neither opposed nor in favor as a matter of principle to contracting out of services. The question is what are the costs savings and what is the impact on the quality of services. I will however continue to insist that in any case we have a solid basis for measuring and reporting outcomes to ensure expectations are achieved. 

How do you think the district handled the CHS baseball coach controversy over alleged HIB incidents?

As a sitting Board member, on an issue which implicates both the confidentiality of students and a range of personnel issues, I really can’t comment on the details of this.

What I am proud of is that the Board worked on and adopted a series of policies that define our expectations for the role of coaches and how they engage with student athletes going forward. And we intend to see that those policies are honored both in letter and spirit.

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