As a Matter of Fact!

SOMSD Departmental Updates, September 2019, Vol. 1, Issue 2

Letter from Superintendent Taylor

Dear SOMSD Families,

The district administrators and I hope you find this monthly newsletter very informative! Each department leader has contributed an update on what's happening within their purview. We're striving for clear, useful, transparent communications with you in all spheres, and we genuinely welcome your feedback.

I’d like to extend a warm invitation to my Town Hall Meeting for Elementary Families on Wednesday, October 2 at 7:30 pm at Seth Boyden School (274 Boyden Avenue, Maplewood). I’ll speak about my educational philosophy, priorities, and expectations, and I’ll answer questions from the audience. I look forward to seeing many of you there.

Yours in education,

Dr. Ronald G. Taylor

District-Wide Employee Convocation Presentation

Dr. Taylor’s convocation address at the district-wide professional development day on September 4 included a screening of the TED talk First Follower on ways that leaders and early adopters can inspire a movement (see video below). In response, our staff spontaneously participated in their very own dance-a-thon!

First Follower: Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy
Superintendent Staff Welcome Message Dancing 2019 - High Quality

Curriculum and Instruction Update

Ms. Ann Bodnar, Director of Curriculum and Instruction

The Curriculum and Instruction Office (C&I) hosted New Staff Orientation for more than 60 new SOMSD staff members during the week of August 26. After an opening welcome from Superintendent Taylor, attendees received a full day of professional development in equity and bias awareness led by experts from the MAPSO Freedom School, a locally based organization that promotes student empowerment and educational justice, and from the National SEED Project (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity). The rest of the week involved technology training, visits from the district’s Human Resources and Special Services departments, curriculum work, and a presentation by the South Orange/Maplewood Coalition on Race. The new staff members had a jam-packed but very productive week!

C&I held our first full-day, district-wide professional development session of the school year on September 3. The middle schools and high school embarked on the work they will do this year in Restorative Practices, an internationally acclaimed protocol for building stronger communities by repairing relationships after conflict or injustice. Elementary school teachers focused on our two new language arts programs: Teacher’s College Phonics, a set of early-grade literacy units with fun multisensory and kinetic activities; and Words Their Way, an approach to spelling that aligns with a research-based five-stage developmental model. They also took a deep dive into C&I’s revised math and science curriculum documents, which have been updated to meet new state requirements. Departments from schools across the district gathered together to learn as a group: Special Education focused on goals and expectations; Fine Arts, English as a Second Language (ESL)/World Languages, and Physical Education each worked to enrich and grow their teaching practice. Administrative assistants and clerical aides enhanced their recordkeeping practices. Bus drivers and bus aides received training in the district’s Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying policies and procedures (HIB) and in how to keep students safe from food allergies. C&I warmly thanks the many SOMSD administrators and staff members who presented so capably.

The Columbia High School Music Technology Lab was updated and expanded this summer! Fine Arts Supervisor James Manno collaborated with Soundtree, the educational division of musical instrument distributor Korg USA, to design the reconfigured lab space. Soundtree added two more workstations to increase seating capacity and introduced a control station where the music teacher can listen to each student station, provide feedback via headset, and link students to one another for group learning experiences. Students can use GarageBand, Ableton Live, and, for more complex productions, ProTools to execute the Music Technology course curriculum.

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Convocation keynote speaker Josue B. Falaise, Ed.D., Director of the Rutgers Institute to Improve Student Achievement, Graduate School of Education, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey

Special Services Update

Dr. Laura Morana, Interim Assistant Superintendent Special Services

WHO ARE WE? The Department of Special Services is committed to improving results for children and youth with disabilities from birth through age 21. In providing leadership, we collaborate with, and promote collaboration among, staff in the district as well as members of the community at large.

TIPS FOR A SUCCESSFUL YEAR: It’s a new school year, with new teachers, new expectations, and even, for some of our students, a new school! We have a few tips for parents/guardians that we hope will contribute to a successful year.

· Create a binder with all of your special services documentation in chronological order: educational trajectory documents, meeting notices, IEPs, etc.

· Set up a communications log to keep records of phone calls, emails, notes from meetings, etc.

· Inform your child’s teacher, nurse, or administrator if your child or family experienced any changes over the summer or at the beginning of the school year. Keep them informed over the course of the year of any new changes.

· Keep the lines of communication open with your child’s case manager, and reach out with any questions or concerns.

PREPARING FOR LIFE AFTER GRADUATION: The transition from high school to college or career is a critical and potentially challenging one for all students, but particularly for students with disabilities. Working toward New Jersey Student Learning Standards (NJSLS) can help all students successfully prepare for life after graduation. For students in the Multiple Disabilities class at Columbia High School, identifying career interests and strengths is also a focus. These efforts enable students to make more fulfilling choices regarding post-high-school employment and/or higher education. Special Services is also expanding our Community-Based Instruction (CBI) program in ways that promote successful and sustainable transitions, adding partnerships with local businesses and community resources. As part of our goal to make learning relevant and meaningful, the CBI program extends the scope of learning beyond classroom walls.

NEW ONLINE IEP SYSTEM: The Individual Education Plan (IEP) Improvement Initiative continues to move forward through the conversion to our new IEP system. Although the development and decision-making processes will be the same at IEP meetings, the new online system will provide greater efficiency and will better fulfill the needs of our teachers, parents, Child Study Team members, Related Services providers, and administrators. Special education requirements will remain consistent with state and federal laws. We look forward to coordinating training for our staff and parents. The gradual conversion will be completed in spring 2020.

RELATED SERVICES: Related Services are an integral part of a student’s IEP. The main goal of these services is to help students benefit from the specialized instruction stipulated in their IEPs. To ensure strong, focused collaboration, our department launched a new Related Services team on September 16 made up of highly committed, organized, and caring specialists.

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New Staff Orientation

Human Resources Update

Dr. Gayle Carrick, Interim Assistant Superintendent of Administration

STAFFING THE SCHOOLS: The SOMSD administrative team, which comprises principals, assistant principals, department supervisors, and directors, worked diligently to staff our schools fully by September 1. Except in a few cases of absences or leaves of absence, certificated teachers and support staff members are in all of our district’s classrooms.

TEACHER RECRUITMENT PLANNING: Planning for 2020-21 recruitment has already begun! While hiring is slowing down now that September has arrived, our recruitment process is year-round. This process includes organizing a series of minority recruitment fairs that will begin in February.

SOMSD teacher recruitment activities, including these minority recruitment fairs, reflect the importance in our district of hiring a diverse instructional staff for all grades. The recruitment process involves deliberate efforts to align staff demographics with student ones. According to David Figlio, Dean of the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University, research has found that “minority students do better contemporaneously in school – and likely in the long run as well – when they are exposed to teachers of their same race or ethnicity” (Brookings Institution website, Nov. 16, 2017). SOMSD seeks continually to improve the district recruitment process and hiring outcomes in this sphere.

Technology Department Update

Mr. Keith Bonds, Director of Technology

District website:

POWERSCHOOL PARENT PORTAL: The district continues to collect vital forms from SOMSD families in the Annual Welcome Packet on the PowerSchool parent portal. These forms provide the district with family contact information, student health information, and a range of important permissions and agreements. All families are asked to complete these crucial online forms as soon as possible.

To set up your PowerSchool parent portal account, which you’ll need to do before you can open the forms, please visit the district home page (see the URL above) and select Quick Links > Parents > PowerSchool. Click the “Create Account” tab, then the button “Create Account.” Fill in “Parent Account Details,” creating your preferred username and a case-sensitive password of at least 8 characters (be sure to make a note of your username and password!). Under “Link Students to Account,” use the Access ID and Access Password included in the letter that our department mailed to you about the Parent Portal on August 30, or email our dedicated help desk at

To fill out the online forms once you’ve created your parent portal account, go to the district home page, select Quick Links > Parents > PowerSchool, log in using the username and password you created, click on “eCollect Forms” in the left navigation menu, and click on the forms in the Annual Welcome Packet category to enter your information into each one.

Remember, the PowerSchool parent portal can also be used to view student grades and attendance. If you need assistance with your account or with navigating the portal, go to the district home page and select Quick Links > Parents > PowerSchool Parent Portal Help, or email the parent portal help desk at

NEW DISTRICT WEBSITE: During the 2018-19 school year, SOMSD relaunched our district website to be clearer, easier to navigate, and more up-to-date. The new website runs on Wordpress, a platform that has enabled us to make many improvements to the site’s design and functionality. We are currently exploring options to implement the following features:

· Calendar subscriptions to allow you to receive updates from district and school calendars.

· “Add to Calendar” to add district and school calendar events to your Google or iOS calendar.

· Social media integration to enable you to share district website content (calendar events and news articles) to popular social media platforms.

PRINTER SUPPORT: The district has moved to a managed print service for all printers in the district. This change allows for quicker repairs to broken printers and faster delivery of replacement toner. Teachers and staff members should continue to submit technology work orders for repairs and toner. Instructions for submitting technology work orders can be found here.

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Facilities Update

Mr. Paul Roth, School Business Administrator/Board Secretary

LONG-RANGE FACILITIES PLAN: As reported in our August update, the Board of School Estimate (comprising three South Orange Village Trustees, three Maplewood Township Committee members, and two SOMSD Board of Education members) voted on July 10 to approve our district’s Long-Range Facilities Plan (LRFP), a $160 million capital plan to expand, refurbish, and reconfigure our schools. On July 15, the board authorized the administration to sell bonds. We are happy to report that our district maintained its AA2 bond rating at its ratings review on July 31. The bond sale was held on August 13, with the district securing a 2.6% interest rate, significantly lower than originally projected.

The bond sale has since closed, and the district has received the first $64.4 million. A bid opening for an arbitrage managed depository was held on Friday, September 6. Our financial advisor, Phoenix Advisors, reviewed the plan. During the September 16 Board of Education meeting, the board approved a depository. All interest earned on the bond proceeds will be used to reduce debt service payments, thereby lowering the tax impact.

Capital improvements will begin in the elementary schools first, which have been prioritized because of student enrollment concerns (e.g., the 3% increase in kindergarten enrollment this year; see the Registration Update below). Together with Superintendent Taylor, elementary school principals will meet with architects this week and throughout the fall to refine designs and prepare bid specifications for these improvements. The current targets are to seek bids in February 2020 to carry out the projects, award contracts in March 2020, and break ground once school is out. Work on the secondary schools and athletic fields is slated to begin at a later date.

Registration Update

Dr. Gayle Carrick, Interim Assistant Superintendent of Administration

ENROLLMENT INCREASES: Increases in district-wide student enrollment continue to keep the SOMSD Office of Registration very busy. To date, we have 7,231 students enrolled in our district, a 2% increase since September of last year. Our kindergarten population increased this year by 3%. (See the bar graphs below.) While the number of families seeking to enroll their children has leveled off somewhat since our recent peak time in July and August, we anticipate new registrations through early October. To all of the students placed in our schools, we extend our best wishes for a successful school year!

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SOMSD First-Week-of-School Pics...

The School District of South Orange and Maplewood

A district that celebrates diversity!