By Kevin Coughlin
It took a state Supreme Court ruling and an edict from New Jersey’s education commissioner to force the merger of Morristown and Morris Township schools in 1971.
Yet the Morris School District has endured, surviving early racial unrest and shifting demographics, to become an anchor of Morristown’s economic renaissance and, some would say, a beacon of diversity in one of America’s most segregated states.
This 5,226-student district has thrived as merger attempts in New Brunswick, Plainfield and elsewhere have failed.
What is the secret sauce?
An academic report released on Monday does not reveal the precise recipe. But it savors key ingredients of “what may be the most diverse school district in New Jersey.”
And it is optimistic about the future–even as the district grapples with how to educate an influx of low-income students from Guatemala and Honduras, and how to integrate its predominantly white honors and advanced placement courses.
“As to both challenges, the Morris district is manifesting a remarkably can-do spirit and a palpable will to succeed,” according to the authors of Remedying School Segregation: How New Jersey’s Morris School District Chose to Make Diversity Work.
“The Morris district has proven over forty-five years that a diverse community can find ways to support diverse schools, notwithstanding formidable challenges. As New Jersey becomes an ever more diverse statewide community, perhaps that lesson can take hold far more broadly,” the document states.
Compiled over two years, from dozens of interviews with past and present district administrators, teachers, parents and students, the study was released by the Century Foundation, with support from the Fund for New Jersey, the Mills Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Morris Educational Foundation, and individual donors.
Paul Tractenberg, emeritus professor at Rutgers Law School and president of the Center for Diversity and Equality in Education, spearheaded the research. In 1973, he established the public interest Education Law Center, which has represented urban students in the landmark Abbott v. Burke case.
Tractenberg’s colleagues on the Morris study are Allison Roda, an assistant professor of education at Molloy College, and Ryan Coughlan, an instructor of sociology at Guttman Community College (CUNY).
They hope to turn their Morris Project into a book.
The Morris School District is “not nirvana,” Tractenberg said. Average test scores are unimpressive, and high school graduation rates are about average. The faculty is 86 percent white. Some minority parents have suggested the district could do more to encourage their kids to take honors courses.
But these points don’t diminish the district’s achievements, Tractenberg told MorristownGreen.com.
“What surprised me the most was how dedicated the staff is to working effectively to reach all segments of its incredibly diverse population. I didn’t expect that level of commitment and creativity,” he said.
Tractenberg cited district initiatives to give Chromebooks to all students in grades 6-12, and to provide special WiFi home access to students without it.
The district also works closely with churches that provide after-school tutoring. And it connects newly arrived teenaged immigrants –who in some cases have scant prior education–with graduate-equivalency programs to help them earn diplomas, he said.
At the same time, Morristown High School has launched a vibrant STEM Academy for students interested in science, technology, engineering and math. MHS graduates are accepted by Ivy League universities and other top colleges in respectable numbers. This fall, the high school opened a wing with state-of-the-art vocational equipment, too.
District Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast, who came from tony Mendham in 2015, praised the report as thorough and comprehensive.
“It should be required reading for every student and parent and teacher and administrator in the Morris School District,” he said.
RIOTS, VISION AND FORMULAS
The merger stopped the more affluent Morris Township from building its own high school, a move that some feared would lead to white flight from Morristown.
While many pressed for the merger, the researchers cite three as vital. Beatrice Jenkins, a black Morristown resident, was a plaintiff in the state Supreme Court Case. Carl Marburger was the state education commissioner who ordered the merger after the high court affirmed his power to do so; that order probably cost him his job.
Above all, there was Stephen B. Wiley, a Morristown High School graduate and civic leader who argued the case.
“His vision and leadership is something that got it started,” Pendergrast said of the late attorney, who founded the Morris Educational Foundation. “He had the right values and tone and dialog with the community. That leadership is part of our narrative.”
The district’s white population did decline in the wake of the merger–dropping nearly 11 percent between 1970 and 1980, a couple of percentage points more than the statewide decline.
Riots shut down Morristown High School for six days in 1974, which may have had something to do with that.
Today, 22 percent of children in the Township attend private schools, almost twice the state average, the report notes.
Yet the Morris School District remains remarkably diverse: As of 2014-15, its student population was 52 percent white, 11 percent black, 32 percent Hispanic and 5 percent Asian, with 35 percent receiving free or reduced-price lunch because of low-income.
That compares with a state profile of 47 percent white, 16 percent black, 26 percent Hispanic, 9 percent Asian, and 38 percent getting free lunches.
A Morris District formula has achieved what Tractenberg considers a novel feat: Its schools closely reflect the overall diversity of the district’s population, even though neighborhoods tend to be segregated along racial or ethnic lines.
Children from the district’s center– Morristown’s Second and Third Wards and the Collinsville section of the Township, places where many blacks and Hispanic immigrants live–are assigned to the district’s eight elementary schools to ensure each has a diverse mix.
Recommendations from the Century Foundation report:
diversify the teaching and administrative staffs;
provide more effective English-as-a-second-language instruction;
provide more and better early childhood education, especially for at-risk students;
improve outreach to Hispanic parents and other caregivers;
sensitize teachers to cultural differences among their students and ensure that teachers don’t underestimate, perhaps unconsciously, the educational potential of students of color;
find constructive ways for the schools and the broader community to address honestly and openly the complex issues confronted by diverse school districts;
develop and implement strategies to have higher-level courses and programs, as well as special education classifications and those who run afoul of disciplinary policies, reflect the diversity of the district and school;
create more opportunities for cross-cultural exchange by offering multicultural curricular offerings and programs to reduce implicit biases and foster an inclusive school culture.
In the 1970s, this merger was a black-and-white issue. But the Hispanic population skyrocketed by 281 percent during that decade. Today, the percentage of blacks has declined, and Hispanics account for about one-third of the district’s pupils.
Accordingly, the district is redesigning its bilingual and English-as-a-second-language programs, among other measures, said Pendergrast, the superintendent.
To emulate the Morris merger, other school districts will need money, staying power, flexibility and creativity, Tractenberg said.
Community involvement is essential. Morristown and Morris Township share roots stretching back centuries; many residents in both municipalities view them as one community. The Morristown Neighborhood House, houses of worship, and parents who believe diversity serves a greater good than shiny test scores, all have helped the district succeed, Tractenberg said.
And if other towns are lucky, the report said, they will have leaders like Steve Wiley, son of a Morristown school superintendent, who once said of his beloved Morris School District:
Our schools teach the ABC’s with distinction, but young people in Morristown High and the grade schools also learn the D’s, E’s and F’s. By association and experience they learn about democracy and diversity, about equal opportunity and ethnic strengths, about freedom and fraternity, about the whole alphabet of America.
The district should remember those words as it tackles the challenges ahead, Pendergrast said.
“If we’re going to be successful, we need to go back to Steve Wiley. To go forward, we have to honor our past. That is the way forward for us.”