Officials say that improvements will be hard-won, and won’t come overnight, but they feel supported by the teacher’s union and district families in pushing towards their goals.
By Matt Skoufalos | February 28, 2023
In the past month, Collingswood public schools have weathered a week of student protests over the quality of their high-school environment; a gripping community forum, rife with testimonials of abuse and prejudicial treatment of students at the hands of district authority figures; open calls for the resignation of Superintendent Fredrick McDowell from no less than student representatives to the borough Board of Education (BOE); and vocal anxiety from school staff over the impact of the district budgeting process.
But if this is a watershed moment for the district, those tasked with stewarding its future outlined plans to do so at a packed school board meeting Monday evening.
Collingswood BOE President Regan Kaiden outlined a list of tasks through which McDowell is responsible for charting a course for the district in the coming weeks, and none of them is easily achieved.
- Presenting the board with an analysis of incidents, findings, and investigations that resulted from last week’s community forum
- Drafting a plan with specific ideas to diversify the district faculty with more Black teachers, to more closely mirror student demographics
- Providing staff training on diversity, equity, and inclusion
- Auditing district curricula to ensure its cultural responsiveness
- Addressing inequitable disciplinary practices within the district
- Developing a plan to repair fractured relationships between faculty and students
McDowell is expected to present a progress update on these responsibilities at next month’s board meeting, but movement on systemic issues related to power imbalances, institutional racism, childhood trauma, and cultural education is both slow-going and difficult to illustrate.
For a district that’s been riven by longstanding community issues and a recently emergent pattern of violence, leaders say their message is clear.
“The bottom line,” Kaiden said, “is that we’re determined.
“We’re determined to make sure that we do what we can to meet the moment, and not sweep this under the rug,” she said.
“I understand the impulse to assume that that’s perhaps what’s going to happen, because it’s generally what happens in these sorts of cases.
“The students got the ball rolling, and we’ve got to keep up the momentum to work with them, and for them to make our school district a place where everyone feels safe, and seen, and heard,” Kaiden said.
Although Collingswood Schools are focused on enshrining an anti-racist, anti-bias perspective within the district ethos, in both word and deed, the work of getting there will be methodical, and carefully structured.
Kaiden said the Board is willing to lead by example and examine its own behavior, while also committing to provide staff and educators with the resources they need to achieve the goals it establishes.
“Things start with words and plans, and we make sure that they’re followed by action steps that parents and teachers are following in their day-to-day,” she said.
“By our March meeting, everything isn’t going to be rosy and fixed, and we know that. What we’re promising each month is reporting on what’s to be done, what we’ve already done, and what we’re going to do next.”
At Monday’s meeting, Collingswood Education Association (CEA) President Rick Pence offered a commitment from the district teacher’s union to participate earnestly in the work that follows.
“Just like all of you here tonight, we are experiencing pain and uncertainty of finding a way forward,” Pence said. “Amidst the pain and uncertainty, the members of CEA stand united in our resolve to ensure that every student feels safe and welcomed in school.
“As a union, we are committed to working together to repair damage that has been done, and ultimately, to building an inclusive, respectful environment for who[ever]walks through our school doors,” he said.
“Not a single one of our union members wants to work in a place where anyone, whether they be student, staff, or parents, feel undervalued or mistreated,” Pence said.
“In the last few weeks, our members have had tough conversations with their classes,” he said.
“And these conversations can only happen when everyone is valued. As a union, we are committed to this.”
Pence spoke about CEA members’ willingness to examine their own behavior in an effort to more closely approach district goals, and form lasting bonds with the students entrusted to their care.
To that end, he said the union “will soon be offering space for our members to hold honest conversations and training with experts in facilitating anti-racist training.
“We know the work ahead will be hard, and challenge us, but again, this is what we signed up for, we accept the challenge and we challenge you to do the same with us,” Pence said.
To Kaiden, those remarks comprised a statement that “meets the moment.
“It makes me feel very hopeful that we can all work together on this,” she said. “The teachers at the high school or any school in our district didn’t get into this to make students feel bad. They’re all in it for the right reasons. It felt very good to hear them pledge that they’re in this work with us.”
For his part, McDowell said many of the initiatives outlined in the board expectations were existing district goals as part of its Vision 2026 strategic plan, which was approved by the body in June 2022. The lag in their implementation is related to the budget cycle, he said.
“Everything from [cultivating] a welcoming environment, to diversification of the educator/administrator pipeline, to building cultural competency — all those things that continue to bubble up have already been approved by the board,” McDowell said.
“What had not been established was a budget, because budgets are approved in March,” he said. “This has forced us to accelerate our timeline, and be responsive to the immediate needs while not ignoring the long-term needs. We’ve been engaged in discussions with professionals on these projects, and that work has started.”
To accelerate the timeline of those initiatives, McDowell said the district will work to attach real, measurable goals to its policy initiatives — including targeted professional development initiatives and “leadership alignment” among the board and district and building staff — which can lead to improved practices within its day-to-day operations.
“We’re not trying to kick the can down the road, and we’re not waiting until summer to begin,” the superintendent said. “The gotta-have-it-now mentality, we’re having to calm that a bit, because a superficial approach to a systemic problem will not last. We know that in the immediate, we need to begin repairing relationships among faculty and students. But we need a framework in order to be able to do that.”
Asked about his relationship with district personnel, McDowell said he has “frequent and regular conversations” with principals, supervisors, and educators within the school system, “and they are both committed to moving this work forward in partnership with the district.” He also cautioned that progress on any of these metrics “will look slow.
“We’ll be better by the end of the year than we are now; we’ll be better next year than we are today,” the superintendent said. “We are not going to be able to solve a 50-year problem in six months. Long-term, sustainable change can only happen when it’s embraced, owned, and employed by members of the community.
“We are all accountable to working together for the solution, and my job as superintendent is to help usher in opportunities for us to bring together the type of changes that we say we want,” he said.
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