Board addresses district obligation to anti-racist learning

"We are prepared to do all the work that’s necessary,” says superintendent

The Mt. Laurel Schools’ Board of Education building, where the board usually holds its meetings.

The Mt. Laurel Township Schools Board of Education held its last regular meeting of the 2019-2020 school year June 9, a virtual session that began with Superintendent Dr. George J. Rafferty acknowledging the impact on the community of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police last month.

“It was obviously very disturbing and upsetting to our school community, to our teachers, to our students, to our administrators,” he said. 

In recognition of the demonstrable pain brought to the forefront, Rafferty issued letters “similar in intent” to both the community and school staffers in early June.

Bearing the title “Supporting Our Children’s Emotional Well-Being,” his message invoked the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to say that students must be assessed by the contents of their character, not the color of their skin. Rafferty implored school employees to continue being the light that drives out darkness by being instruments of the love that drives out hate, even from the frustrating distance the COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated.

“We take into our hands each day the minds and hearts of young children, and we’ve very concerned about their well-being emotionally,” the superintendent said. “We want to make sure that our community understands and our families and parents all understand that our administrators and teachers are here to support them.”

Rafferty reminded everyone that making black students feel both more supported and safer will not be fast work.

“Too often, quick fixes have led to not meaningful change — and I think the protestors we’re seeing in our community and around the country and around the world is a testament to that,” Rafferty noted, warning against the potential damage that can be inflicted with lessons rushing to address racial wounds without deeper consideration of the scope of systematic issues. “We are prepared to do all the work that’s necessary.”

Rafferty said that both he and school staff are mindful of the work they themselves have to do to be catalysts for significant, lasting social improvements. 

“Our protestors are showing, for sure, that those kinds of steps that were taken in the past have not led to the kind of meaningful, long-lasting change,” he said. 

Current plans include “activating all the support services we have in our schools,” such as school psychologists, guidance counselors, social workers, nurses and a student-assistance coordinator, to provide emotional support for students who need it. 

Additionally, principals and teachers are closely monitoring their students to ensure any questions about current events can be addressed directly and sensitively instead of dismissed or downplayed.  

“More than anything right now, the social and emotional well-being of our students is at the forefront of everything that we’re doing,” Rafferty said, as the schools move forward in ensuring that curriculums, lessons and teaching methods are appropriately modified to encourage long-term change.  

He also discussed routine end-of-year procedures that have been impacted by the switch to remote learning, such as the immediate closure of school buildings and the resulting influx of students who need to either retrieve personal belongings from their classrooms or return school-issued items like library books and musical instruments. 

The schools have reached out to students’ families to facilitate those retrievals and returns. Rafferty added that crucial supplies like Chromebooks will remain with students and teachers. Virtual extended school-year services will be available this summer. 

“We anticipate that there will probably be several hundred students receiving virtual online instruction this summer as an extended program through their IEPs [Individualized Education Programs] and through other eligible programs,” Rafferty explained. 

He closed out his report to the school board by saying that while families have been looking for guidance in regard to what the 2020-2021 school year will look like, “September remains to be seen” until the district receives further guidance from either Gov. Phil Murphy or the New Jersey Department of Education. 

School Business Administrator Robert Wachter provided an update about the maintenance projects going on throughout the district, specifically identifying the paving project at Larchmont Elementary School as “really moving.” Concrete work and curb replacement is underway at each school building, as is slab replacement at Countryside Elementary School.

“We’re taking advantage of the downtime in these buildings,” Wachter confirmed. 

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Director of Communication Services Marie Reynolds read a letter submitted by a mixed-race Mt. Laurel family calling for the school district to take “a variety of approaches to discuss [racial] issues” in the wake of Floyd’s death, including offering support to students struggling with their own feelings and ensuring that lessons don’t eclipse the differing experiences of blacks  within the context of history. 

The letter, written by parents Kim and Dennis Hayes, stated that children should learn to be “upstanders,” not bystanders, and that it can start with internalizing “uncomfortable but vital subjects” during in-service day training.

“It’s good to hear from people in the community how they feel about how we handle things,” said board President Diane Blair.

Rafferty accepted, with regret, Reynolds’ retirement letter and allowed board members the opportunity to comment on her 26 years of service to Mt. Laurel schools.

“We tried like heck to keep her here,” said Rafferty. “I’m sure going to miss you, Marie. It certainly won’t be the same.”

He acknowledged that Reynolds has been a key player in the district’s direction and credited her for often highlighting the easily overlooked but nonetheless important details that many others miss.

Blair added an emotional farewell and congratulations to Reynolds on behalf of the board.

“You have been referred to by this town as a Mt. Laurel treasure,” Blair said through tears. “What you have is that instinct, that empathy, that you possess, that way that you can connect with children, with parents, with our township … We really are lucky to have had that.”

The next meeting of the school board will be July 21.