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What's Next at SOMS? District Hopes to ‘Move Beyond’ Tenure Controversy

After heated debate, letters and protests, superintendent says: ‘We have heard your feedback, and take it very seriously.’

It’s been a quite a year since Joseph Uglialoro was introduced to South Orange Middle School as the new principal. He stepped in at a critical juncture as the district adopted plans to de-level academic classes and begin an international baccalaureate program. This week, he celebrated his first anniversary since being hired amid the nasty business of tenure and student protests.

The debate over why two popular social studies teachers were denied tenure shifted this week from the lawn of the South Orange school -- where about 100 students  demonstrated to save their teachers’ jobs -- to the school’s Home and School Association (HSA). The principal and district superintendent met to “help move SOMS beyond the recent controversy,” according to a statement released by Superintendent Brian Osborne on Thursday.

The teachers -- Steven Cohen and Kathleen McCort -- have the right to appeal. The process involves what is known as a “Donaldson Hearing." Established by the New Jersey Supreme Court, they had 10 days from the receipt of a statement of reasons for non-renewal to request the hearing, which must then be scheduled within 30 days.

The district’s spokeswoman said on Thursday she could not comment on whether either teacher has requested a Donaldson Hearing. (Click here to read the full statement by the superintendent. The Renewal Process for Non-Tenured Teachers is attached to this story as a PDF.).

Uglialoro was chosen from a field of nearly 70 candidates. He is "purposefully dedicated to middle school years where kids take off or turn off," the superintendent said a year ago.

With the decision not to renew the contracts of popular teachers, he's since turned students on to lessons on civil liberities and civil disobedience.

The students who walked out will be serving detention time over the four-day weekend, but they said their protest was worth the punishment. Their efforts continue on online social media sites, where students have posted video of their protest on YouTube, MR. COHEN & MS. MCCORT 2012, with a hand-written introduction, “This is our time.”

The superintendent said he stands firmly behind his choice. “I want to assure the SOMS community that Joe Uglialoro has my full and unequivocal support as Principal of South Orange Middle School,” the superintendent said in his statement.

“I recognize that some community members are upset with the recent personnel decisions. We have heard your feedback, and take it very seriously,” Osborne’s statement says. “We may not always agree on specific decisions, but I know we are all committed to setting our students up for success, and giving them the challenges and the support they need to achieve their fullest potential. We all agree that effective teaching is essential in this journey.”

The middle school restructuring will begin in stages. The international baccalaureate program will be phased in over several years and the district has recently been advertising to hire IB Instructional Coaches. These are new positions, added during the March budget season, according to the school spokeswoman Suzanne Turner. “They do not replace the social studies teacher positions, or any other staff positions.”

"This has been an incredibly eventful year at SOMS," Uglialoro told the executive committee of the HSA according to notes of the meeting provided by the district. (Notes are attached to this article as a PDF).

"It has been marked by both first and second order changes – each intended to move this school from good to exceptional, and in doing so ensure that every one of our students is prepared for success in high school and beyond," the principal said. "In one way or another, those changes have put stress on our school community, and all of the stakeholders who participate in it.

SOMSstudents May 27, 2012 at 02:18 PM
Thank you Mr. Davenport for your advice. The reason being for my name being anonymous is not only for security purposes but also because I do not believe in taking all the credit. The majority of the 8th graders are particpating in this cause and we represent this event as a whole. I will take a look at the link and thanks again.
John Davenport May 27, 2012 at 04:55 PM
I think it is no problem for a student to be anonymous on Patch, given that you have to live day to day in the middle school. I just meant that signatures on the ipetitions list for Cohen & McCort should not be anonymous, or they don't count as much. Note also that you do not have to contribute anything (when you sign, ipetitions takes you to a voluntary donation page, but you can just leave that page).
SOMSstudents May 28, 2012 at 02:59 PM
I realize that signatures should not be anonymous. In fact on School In Action Night I got over 150 signatures on a similiar petition by both parents and students for this cause. Me being one of the ones who signed it with my real name. Me living day to day in middle school has nothing to do with the fact that my name stays anonymous on this website. Most students in the 8th grade already know who I am because I'm the one who interviewed them for my videos. Thank you again for your time and advice. Please tell your friends and family about this cause and our youtube channel.
MandM June 01, 2012 at 02:59 AM
It's about time... it only took a protest outside the school, BOE meeting speeches, sit-in, protest in School in Action Night, all day sit-out, HSA meeting, and posters outside the office.
MandM June 01, 2012 at 03:01 AM
A lot of people don't know that children were kicked out of the building that night for protesting and talking to attendees.

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