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MHS Equity & Inclusion Student Council Receives State Recognition as Agents of Change

A dedicated and passionate group of students at Morristown High School has been working diligently over the last year to help the MSD actualize its goals for equity, inclusion, and anti-racism. They are members of the MHS Equity and Inclusion Student Council, which was recently selected to represent Morris County for the NJ State Board of Education Student Recognition Program. The group was recognized for this distinction at the State’s Student Recognition Award Ceremony.

According to Interim Executive County Superintendent Dr. Timothy Purnell, the MHS E&I Student Council created a submission that was not only well-crafted and engaging, but which stood out to the judging panel because of its “multi-faceted approach to creating an anti-racist environment.”  

With the support and guidance of MHS educators Matthew Carmel and Tanya Cepeda, the students have used their powerful voices, courageous conversations, and advocacy to drive important changes to district systems and raise awareness of the impact that racism and racist acts have on students' academic success as well as their social and emotional well-being. Mr. Carmel remarked, “It has been the supreme honor of my career to work with such a dedicated, thoughtful and compassionate group of young people. Together they have taken bold and courageous actions to shape policies which will forever impact the students of the Morris School District. Their legacy of leadership is beyond compare.” Mrs. Cepeda added, “Their dedication to creating a more equitable environment at MSD has been their top priority this year. Along with completing their yearly studies, they have dedicated endless hours to this endeavor. This is a well-deserved honor.”

Since June of 2020, the Council has partnered with both high school and Central Office administration to effect real change in the district. Among their many accomplishments this past year, they provided outreach to MSD elementary schools through story time, encouraged middle schoolers of color to take higher level courses in high school, acted as a support system for students of color in AP and Honors classes at MHS, engaged English Language Learners in the high school and facilitated unification among all students regardless of language, provided input on and revisions to the district’s annual Equity and Inclusion student survey and helped Central Office analyze and respond to student data, collaborated with local police departments to improve community relations with law enforcement, and created and led professional development to all district faculty and staff on a very difficult topic--microaggressions.

The MHS Equity and Inclusion Student Council was founded during the 2018-19 school year in alignment with the MSD’s Equity and Inclusion Action Plan, which indicated among many other coordinated objectives a commitment to “provide opportunities for student voice.” From five original members, the group has now grown to over 60, including a 13-member executive board. 


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. 

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.