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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. 

Letter from Superintendent Pendergrast Regarding Current National Events

Superintendent Pendergrast shares his thoughts and reaffirms the values of the Morris School District.

June 3, 2020

Dear Morris School District Community,

There are important words that I want to share with you today—that I have a responsibility to share with you as the leader of this school community at a time of grave national concern.  First and foremost, in the strongest possible terms, I condemn—and the Morris School District condemns—the ugly racism that persists in this country and the continual persecution of African Americans, whether in overt ways like the murder of George Floyd and other brutal acts of violence, or in more insidious ways like the daily prejudices and institutional barriers faced by communities of color.  All of this is reprehensible and stands at clear odds with the inalienable rights with which all Americans should be endowed.

Recent events in Minneapolis and across the nation have left many of us feeling grief, outrage, and a sense of powerlessness, regardless of our geographic location, age, gender, or race.  But I recognize as well that there is a particular anguish felt by our students, staff, families, and community members of color that I will never experience as a white person.  

In my personal and professional life, it has been my practice to always try to attach myself to something positive.  Thus, in spite of the overwhelming magnitude of the current moment, I am cleaving to the power of education.  I have to believe that education will help steer us forward.  Urgent change is possible, and educating our students to embrace that concept and strive toward its realization is incumbent on all of us who work with, care for, and love our young people.  I take some solace, and I hope you do, too, in believing that we can help our students to stand firm against injustice everywhere; to develop and deploy their skills of reasoning, communication, and collaboration in order to bridge differences; to marshal their convictions and shape them into acts of kindness, empathy, community support, and social change.

How can we, the Morris School District, do our part to arrive at a more perfect union, to bend the arc toward justice?  I think a starting place lies in our district’s long-standing investment in becoming an inclusive “community of communities.”  During the past few years, you may have heard me refer to the founding of the Morris School District in the early 1970s under a court order designed to promote racial balance and integration.  While the extent to which this initial promise has held true is relative and not always consistent, I still think our district has prospered because the ideal of an inclusive community was baked right in.  Yet more important than anchoring ourselves in the ideals of our district’s founding, we must earnestly and continually re-examine whether we are, in fact, living up to them.  Two of our ongoing district priorities (implementing our Equity & Inclusion Action Plan and building and sustaining a healthy community) have provided valuable direction in this regard and have enabled us to accomplish things of which we should all be very proud.  But we are imperfect, and there is still much urgent work to be done to become the community of communities we aspire to be.  

We must be steadfast enough in our commitment to equity and inclusion to be able to ask ourselves tough questions and answer them honestly so that we can continue our progress.  Are we sufficiently cultivating an environment in which each student belongs, feels valued, and derives the advantages of an exceptional education?  Where do we fall short?  Where can we look closer, learn better, and work harder to achieve real inclusiveness?  We must check ourselves and interrogate our programs and practices, making certain that we have the mechanisms and the habits in place to keep performing this kind of institutional self-examination.

The history of racism in the United States and its persistent legacy of trauma is difficult for adults to confront and grapple with, and perhaps even more so for our children.  But confront it we must.  

To assist in your conversations at home, our counselors and administrators are assembling some resources that they will share with you in the coming days.  At the middle and high school levels, plans are taking shape to offer our older students a forum for discussing current events and their reactions to them.  FMS and MHS families will hear more about these plans from their respective principals.  Counselors and outreach coordinators at each school are available for students who are experiencing distress.  Please reach out to your principal to connect you to someone who can help.  

The Morris School District affirms our enduring values of equity and inclusion so that each student can ascend academically, socially, and emotionally.  Our Equity & Inclusion Action Plan articulates the terms of this commitment:  “Under the guiding principle that education is a right to which all human beings deserve equal access, our students will be empowered to seek and evaluate multiple perspectives, collaborate with new understandings and cultural proficiencies, contribute to our democratic society and the world at large with tolerance and civility, practice empathy and kindness, and respect the dignity of all people through their words and actions.”  With these precepts in mind, together as one community we will push onward relentlessly to build a better world.


Mackey Pendergrast
Superintendent of Schools

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.

Humanities Academy Teachers Dive Deep into Design Thinking at Stanford

Teachers John Madden and Matt Daly attended an intensive workshop at Stanford University's prestigious d.school as part of their summer professional development, bringing back with them new insights and experiences to share with students and colleagues.

Q:  What do places like MIT, Princeton, and Stanford have in common with the Morristown High School Academies?

A:  High-level, innovative programs in Design Thinking!

This summer, Morristown High School English teachers John Madden and Matt Daly spent an intensive three days at the K12 Lab, one of several rigorous professional learning opportunities offered by Stanford University’s d.school--a dynamic cross-disciplinary program in design thinking.  A hallmark of both the Humanities Academy and the STEM Academy at Morristown High School, “design thinking” is a human-centered methodology for addressing real-world problems that foregrounds empathy; throughout its iterative stages, design thinking revolves around a deep interest in developing an understanding of the people for whom we are designing.  Stanford’s K12 Lab gives educators the “creative confidence” to further their knowledge of design thinking through actual design challenges and to develop specific strategies for implementing the methodology in their own classrooms and schools.  

As part of a diverse international cohort of 50 teachers and school leaders, Madden and Daly assumed the role of students in an introductory design thinking course.  This enabled them to experience instruction from the students’ point of view as they collaborated with other educators to problem-solve and negotiated a range of different perspectives and levels of expertise.  Daly recalls, “the emphasis on creating empathy in our designs was constant throughout the activities, and really brought home the concept and importance of keeping the ‘human’ in human-centered design.”  They also found a strong correlation between the imperative to recognize one’s assumptions and biases in the design process, a salient theme of the Stanford workshop, and their own professional development in Culturally Responsive Practices and Social-Emotional Learning, which teachers in the Morris School District have been focusing on over the past two years.  

In the Humanities Academy, students learn the fundamentals of the design thinking process in their first year of the program and then focus on its various applications through in-depth, self-directed projects in subsequent years.  Their course of study culminates in an original senior-year creation and presentation.  Because feedback is essential to the design thinking approach, students are given multiple opportunities in and out of the classroom to develop ideas and share their research with the school and wider community. Madden and Daly have established a series of “In the Schools” forums held at the town/township library for this purpose, and students present their end-of-year projects at the annual Humanities Night at the high school.  Along with their peers in the STEM Academy, Humanities students can attend several design thinking sessions at Princeton University, where they work side by side with Princeton undergrads on design challenges.

Together with their Humanities Academy classes, Madden and Daly have devised a core set of “Habits of Mind” that students learn to cultivate and draw from as they approach their coursework and research projects.  These habits of mind include values-based principles such as empathy, mindfulness, and intentionality as well as principles that are reflected in an individual’s behavior, like flexibility, intrinsic motivation, and persistence.  Thus, the Humanities Academy emphasizes the significance of the metacognitive dimension of learning:  a student’s mindset is integral to the creative process and to the end result.  According to Madden, their approach to teaching vis-a-vis “habits of mind” was echoed throughout the workshop at Stanford’s K12 Lab.  “It was tremendously gratifying to realize how far developed our program at Morristown High is, and how the ideas coming out of Stanford University are things our students are already well-versed in here in the Humanities Academy,” he stated.  

Having left Stanford with an invaluable network of teachers and professors to continue learning from, with new activities and resources to export into their own classrooms, and with new ways to frame objectives such as approaching a text or writing a paper, Madden and Daly want to ensure that their experience in the K12 Lab travels back to the Morris School District.  They look forward to opportunities to dialogue with colleagues here in the Morris School District from a range of academic fields about ways that this methodology can inform teaching practices across subject areas and bring teachers from different disciplines together through a shared and richly productive language of inquiry.  

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.”