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Making Music, Making History

Music has a special power to unite our students and our community--even during extraordinarily challenging times.

One of the disciplines most impacted by COVID precautions was music--a perennial strength in the Morris School District, where students typically benefit from dedicated instrumental instruction beginning in 4th grade. But in-person ensembles were not possible for the majority of the school year, so music teachers came up with a range of creative remote alternatives that allowed students to practice their craft and further their music education in entirely new ways, safely at home. David Gallagher, MHS Director of Bands, helped his students view the challenges presented by the pandemic as history-making opportunities: “At the beginning of the school year, I told my students that this would be a year unlike any other. But that along every step of the way, they would be making history. The way they learned, communicated, built relationships, and interacted with music all made history.”

Even the FMS and MHS concerts, which in non-pandemic times draw hundreds of proud families and community members to share our students’ love of music, were translated to a virtual environment for a history-making experience. Through the ingenuity and passions of the middle and high school music directors and student musicians--and thanks to the wonders of modern digital recording software--individual performances were painstakingly pieced together to produce several videos of spirited virtual concerts, featuring the symphonic and jazz bands, orchestras, and choirs.

An added bonus of the video concert format was hearing directly from students who spoke about how important making music with their classmates had been throughout the pandemic in terms of helping them feel uplifted and connected, even if that connection had taken new and different forms. MHS senior Michael Polania Vivas remarked, “From online music classes to performing in front of a camera, we’ve all learned something new through the obstacles we’ve faced … Whether the concert is virtual or not, music can still have the power to bring us together in the most unprecedented times.” Eighth grader Hannah Cohen thanked the Morris Education Foundation for a generous grant that enabled the FMS chorus to purchase a set of handbells, which gave students the opportunity to still create beautiful sound together when they were not able to sing as a group in person. “They are so fun, and it is so meaningful for us to be able to make music together during this time,” Hannah said. 

The students’ resilience and ongoing commitment to music is not surprising given the role models they have in a talented and enthusiastic cohort of music educators in the Morris School District. For this year’s annual MEF fundraiser, the MSD music teachers formed a band, “Panic! At the Mayo,” and won the Audience Choice award for their lively collaboration. 

Music instruction at the elementary level took place in a virtual format for most of the academic year, but students still had opportunities to apply their performance skills. For example, they learned a sign language accompaniment to the song “What a Wonderful World,” as well as the “Cups” rhythm featured by actress Anna Kendrick in the film Pitch Perfect

Finally, in May, Morristown High School welcomed audiences to the Spring Concert--the District’s first in-person concert since December, 2019. Families brought blankets and lawn chairs to the school’s practice field to enjoy live music by the MHS symphonic band, jazz ensemble, and wind symphony. It was a testament not only to our students’ musical feats but to their enduring strength and spirit throughout this historic year.


Dismantling Systemic Inequity Piece by Piece
Jennifer van Frank

Panorama Education examines how the MSD uses data-driven strategies for building equity and centering the whole child. 

Lessons from the Pandemic on How to Reimagine and Improve Schooling

In this op-ed featured in NJ Spotlight, Superintendent Pendergrast joins forces with Chatham Superintendent Michael LaSusa to explore important takeaways from virtual learning, including what the neuroscience tells us.

MSD in D.C.! Superintendent Pendergrast Shares District's Success at the National Press Club

Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast presented at the National Press Club on October 16 as part of a national showcase on Equity and Excellence.

The national spotlight was on the Morris School District last week, when Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast joined eight other public school leaders from across the United States at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. for the Equity and Excellence: Innovation in American Public Education showcase. The showcase was organized by Digital Promise, a nonprofit dedicated to improving educational opportunities and outcomes through innovative practices and technologies. Superintendents and other public school administrators, education policy makers and thought leaders, and representatives from the press attended the event to learn how successful school districts are addressing the equity gap and positively impacting the lives of marginalized students.

The Morris School District was one of two NJ districts selected by Digital Promise to participate in the Equity and Excellence showcase; Freehold Regional High School District (FRHSD) Superintendent Dr. Charles Sampson also demonstrated his district’s equity work alongside Mr. Pendergrast.  Both the MSD and FRHSD are members of the League of Innovative Schools, a national network of forward-thinking education leaders, entrepreneurs, and researchers within Digital Promise.

As one of the nine presenters at the showcase, Mr. Pendergrast highlighted the Morris School District’s multi-strategy approach to closing achievement gaps in reading and writing at Frelinghuysen Middle School.  Explained Pendergrast, “Four years ago, state standardized test scores revealed marked disparities in student performance among our demographic subgroups, with students of color, economically-disadvantaged students, and students with IEPs performing lower than white and non-economically disadvantaged students.  At the same time, discipline data showed disproportionately higher numbers of behavioral referrals, detentions, and suspensions for African-American and Hispanic students.  Principal Joe Uglialoro and I determined that, in order to create impactful, lasting change at the middle school in terms of equity, access, and achievement, we needed to take the broad view and confront both the reading and writing gap as well as the climate gap.”  A study just published by the American Educational Research Association (AERA) validates their approach; Stanford University Professor Francis Pearman and colleagues have now documented the relationship between racial disparities in school discipline rates and academic achievement between black and white students nationwide.  (See Pearman et. al.  “Are Achievement Gaps Related to Discipline Gaps? Evidence From National Data.”)

Mr. Pendergrast’s demonstration at the Equity and Excellence showcase outlined what he and Mr. Uglialoro call “The Architecture of a Coherent Vision for Learning”--the integration of a comprehensive set of strategies along three fronts:  the transformation of student culture and climate, emphasizing the centrality of positive, affirming human relationships; the elevation of reading and writing instruction, including the move from an every-other-day schedule to a daily schedule of English Language Arts classes; and the universalization of “blended” learning, which couples technology-based and face-to-face instruction, so that all students can have equal access to the skills and resources necessary for the 21st century.

The longitudinal data Mr. Pendergrast shared at the showcase illustrates the far-reaching impact of the Morris School District’s approach.  “Our results are proof of concept,” he stated.  A four-year comparative summary of test scores from the NJ State standardized test in English Language Arts shows significant improvement across the board for all demographic subgroups (see chart below).  For example, economically disadvantaged students receiving a passing score improved by 44 percentage points (from 18% in 2014-15 to 62% in 2018-19).  African American students improved by 35 percentage points (from 30% to 65%), and Hispanic students improved by 51 percentage points (from 17% to 68%).  Over the same time period, discipline rates declined at the middle school:  behavioral referrals went from 788 in 2014-15 to 112 in 2018-19, suspensions from 175 to 18, and lunch detentions from a high of 1034 down to 34.  


*Note: The NJ all-student average for 2018-19 was 62.8%.

Pendergrast calls these results “remarkable,” and noted that it was the combination of coordinated strategies that proved so effective: “It is no mistake that while suspensions and behavioral referrals have dropped dramatically, we have simultaneously seen a dramatic rise in student growth and achievement in reading and writing.  All of the strategies we conceptualized and employed were necessary in concert, and it was the comprehensiveness and coherency of our approach that enabled its success.  Simply reading and writing more is not enough to create this type of improvement unless it is accompanied by the intentional use of data, careful and targeted integration of technology, sustained professional training and dialogue, investment in student participation and social capital, and a shift in culture and climate so that all students feel that they belong and have value in our schools.” 

Pendergrast added:  “What is more, these strategies were not conceived and implemented incidentally; they are aligned to our district mission and firmly rooted in our values--values that are shared by the community and advanced by our partnerships with our stakeholders.  The Morris School District is part of a legacy of committing to inclusive, accessible education for all students.  We are proud of that legacy, and we will continue to work hard toward its realization.”

Both he and Principal Uglialoro gave great credit to the teachers and counselors at Frelinghuysen Middle School for their “uncompromising commitment to providing exceptional instruction, meeting the needs of each student, and inspiring our students to reach new heights.”   

MSD's Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast Awarded Morris County Superintendent of the Year

Calling his leadership post in the MSD a "dream job," Pendergrast discusses some of the achievements of, as well as his vision for, our unique school community.

UPDATE:  Mr. Pendergrast has now been named the North Jersey Regional Superintendent of the Year and is one of three candidates for the 2019 Superintendent of the Year for the State of NJ! 


The Morris School District is proud to announce that Mackey Pendergrast, Superintendent of Schools, has been awarded the Morris County Superintendent of the Year.  In late spring, Mr. Pendergrast was selected by his peer superintendents of the Morris County Association of School Administrators (MCASA) for this distinction.  Scott Moffitt, Superintendent of the Morris County Vocational School District and MCASA President, said of Mr. Pendergrast, “As a veteran superintendent, Mackey is quick to share his knowledge and expertise with his colleagues throughout the county.  In doing so he is always able to communicate effectively and confidently while also being able to lighten the mood no matter how stressful the topic may be.  Mackey will be an excellent ambassador for Morris County.”

As County Superintendent of the Year, Pendergrast is now in the running for the Northern Region Superintendent of the Year, which will be awarded by the NJ Association of School Administrators in the fall.  Of the three regional winners, one will be selected to vie for the American Association of School Adminstrator’s National Superintendent of the Year award. 

Pendergrast has served as superintendent of the Morris School District since June 1, 2015.  Prior to that, he was the superintendent of the West Morris Regional High School District (Mendham and Central High Schools) for four years. Reflecting on his 31-year career as an educator, which has also included positions as director of staff development, district social studies supervisor, guidance counselor, high school history teacher, and varsity basketball coach, Pendergrast describes his current post as a “dream job”:  “I am profoundly grateful everyday for the meaningful work I participate in as superintendent of the Morris School District.  This is a very special community--a fully engaged community, deeply committed to excellence in education, deeply committed to upholding the unique legacy of its public schools.  Our students are ascending, our community is thriving, and I am thrilled to be a part of it.” 

Under his leadership, the Morris School District has seen significant student progress, most notably in overall AP participation and performance at Morristown High School and in reading and writing achievement at Frelinghuysen Middle School.  He credits the implementation of wide-scale revisions to the FMS English Language Arts curriculum and a new schedule of daily English classes with the school’s steadily improving results on the state standardized test.  Students at FMS have outpaced the state average for the past two years in every grade level, and the number of students exceeding expectations has almost tripled.  This success story caught the attention of the NJ Department of Education (NJ DOE); Commissioner Dr. Lamont Repollet and his team visited the middle school last year to see students and teachers in action.  Says Pendergrast, “Our focus at the middle school was never about raising test scores, although that is certainly a logical outgrowth of the improvements we made.  This was about raising expectations for all students, raising the level of rigorous instruction, and really creating the right environment for students to excel in.” 

Pendergrast has also overseen a flourishing of co- and extracurricular programs at the middle and high schools, with many new offerings in STEM and in the arts, as well as a vast expansion of the Preschool, which, together with its partner preschools, has secured an unprecedented multi-million dollar grant from the NJ DOE.  Nancy Bangiola, Vice President of the Morris School District Board of Education, stated:  “When we hired Mackey, we knew we were getting an innovative educational leader who would be thoroughly invested in the success of each child in our district.  But the scope and range of his innovation and the demonstrative effect that has had on student achievement have been far greater than we ever imagined.  He has consistently raised the bar district wide, and each time, the bar has been met.”

Pendergrast notes that the district’s recent accomplishments all point back to a clearly defined strategic plan whose collaborative development he led soon after his arrival.  The Way Forward sets the direction for district actions in specific areas such as language arts and math mastery, global competence, and student and community wellness.  It also reflects the district’s enduring aspirations and commitments:  providing students continuous opportunities for achieving academic excellence, developing meaningful relationships, and becoming future ready.  The underlying premise, insists Pendergrast, is that “each student will ascend academically, socially, and emotionally.”

When asked what he expects to focus on in the coming year as superintendent of schools, Pendergrast responded:  “We are always refining, always gaining insight into what we can do better.  For that to happen in a way that’s authentic and has lasting impact, we need to continue building strong and healthy relationships, both internally and externally.  We strive to be a learning organization, and the partnership with our community is absolutely essential to our ongoing success.  I’m looking forward to enhancing that partnership through various community relations initiatives that foster two-way communication, understanding, and trust.  Ultimately, I want to ensure that our entire system is a responsive one, where people feel they have a voice and that their voice is heard.”