The Morris School District bade an emotional farewell to retiring Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast on Monday, at a board meeting where parents also sharply questioned district policies on grades and vaccination requirements for volunteers.
“As Glinda said to Elphaba in the musical Wicked, you came into our lives for a reason, bringing something that we must learn so we could grow, as a district. And grow we certainly did,” said board President Melissa Spiotta, choking back tears.
Pendergrast was lionized for the district’s rising academic performance, for his commitment to diversity, and for keeping some classrooms open when many other districts closed during the pandemic.
“How lucky have we been,” said board member Nancy Bangiola.
This is the superintendent’s final week. His predecessor, Thomas Ficarra, returns as an interim while the board seeks a permanent hire.
There were good wishes from a music teacher, and from the Morris Educational Foundation, a nonprofit that underwrites programs in the K-12 district, which serves a diverse mix of 5,700 pupils from Morristown, Morris Township and (for high school) Morris Plains.
Former board President Leonard Posey, now a Miami resident, brought kudos and a toy Porsche for Pendergrast, hired on his watch in 2015.
“You have been a true gift to this district,” Margaret Monahan, past president of a home school association (known elsewhere as the PTA), told Pendergrast.
“It’s not fair at all that he’s leaving before my children have all graduated,” joked Jean Jabbour, who knew Pendergrast when he ran Mendham’s schools.
“There was definitely a comfort and a security in knowing that you were in charge, and I’m sad to see you go.”
‘A BLESSED PERSON’
Pendergrast didn’t get every decision right. But he always put students first, said Mark Maire, superintendent of the Morris Plains K-8 district.
It was an especially heavy responsibility in a pandemic.
“Last year was probably the hardest year of our lives. But what you did was you got kids in school every day, and when you look to see what other districts did, I’m grateful that my children were here,” Maire said.
“We didn’t choose this position to be in the limelight. We didn’t choose this position to be fan favorites. We chose it because we wanted to make a difference. You did,” he told Pendergrast.
Nobody thinks this New Jersey Superintendent of the Year will stay retired for long. What’s next for Pendergrast?
“That’s a good question. Hopefully, he’ll try cooking!” said his wife Andrea. They met as young history teachers. “We had hall duty,” she said.
“I’m a lucky man. I’m a blessed person, because of Andrea,” Pendergrast said, thanking his spouse for understanding the 24-7 demands of his job.
His brief farewell remarks followed an overview of the district’s progress. He thanked parents for pushing him to do more for “marginalized kids,” praised the teachers’ union for honest disagreements, and cited laughter and tears shared with his central office team.
“They mean everything to me,” he said.
When the board interviewed Pendergrast in 2014, someone inquired what he was reading. Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See is set in a Nazi-occupied French town in World War II. Coming full circle, Pendergrast drew an analogy to the district’s educational philosophy.
“There is so much goodness in the world, so many positive powerful things out there, so many things that lead to a person’s life being made full and purposeful,” he said.
Academic success, he suggested, stems from a myriad of unseen factors–parents reading to their young children, teachers feverishly grading papers on nights and weekends, “hard conversations” with the board.
Add it all up, he seemed to be saying, and you get the Morris School District.
“This is a great place to be if you want to do great things,” Pendergrast said.
Robust discussion is part of that equation, of course, and the superintendent got an earful on his way out.
Michele Cottone, president of the Sussex Avenue School parents’ association, questioned vaccine mandates for parents who wish to volunteer at school Halloween parties.
That’s stricter than what’s required of teachers, who can submit to COVID-19 testing as an alternative to inoculation, Cottone said. “We’re not being treated equally,” she said.
Parents also gave failing marks to a new grading system. It attempts to standardize grades –making an A an A across all disciplines and classes–and pegs semester grades mostly to a final “summative” test meant to show subject mastery.
District Curriculum Director Brian Young said the Frelinghuysen Middle School has been moving toward this for awhile, and Chatham and Livingston schools adopted similar policies a few years ago.
The district contends this policy aligns more closely with college grading systems.
But parent Scott Wild, a math teacher for 30 years in Newark, said it does not align with grading at the University of Southern California, where his son is a sophomore.
And his kids’ teachers in the Morris district “have no idea what the policy is supposed to be.”
Wild said the district is minimizing the value of homework and class discussion. There are no incentives for either, he said, when a “summative” exam carries far more weight than “formative” studies that precede it.
Another parent, Ken Gustavsen, said one of his children, a high school sophomore, was stressing out because 90 percent of his grade rests on one exam.
“That’s a big deal,” he said, above the loud hum of an air purifier in a Morristown High School auditorium that would resemble a cave — if it had more light and fewer echoes.
Gustavsen’s middle-schooler feels no need to do math homework, the parent added, because teachers aren’t grading it. So the student’s flawed approach to problem-solving went undetected, and uncorrected, for a long time.
“It’s just not working,” Gustavsen said of the new policy.
Attributing parents’ concerns to “confusion over vocabulary and words,” Pendergrast said “there needs to be a lot more clarity” from the district.
But that’s for another day. And another superintendent.