Jamir is seven years old, bright and smart and handsome. He is enrolled in the Asbury Park District and is classified as eligible for special education services because of a diagnosis of ADHD but hasn’t attended school for six months. That’s because the district, according to Jamir’s grandmother, has “kicked him out” and failed to provide an appropriate alternative program for him.
This is wrong in so many ways yet sadly unsurprising for a district that has been decimated through years of poor leadership, particularly in the Student Services department, and in spite of years of oversight by a State Monitor (paid $600/day) and an annual per pupil cost of $28,193. I learned about Jamir’s plight (that’s not his real name) when his grandmother reached out for help. I told her I can’t help her; I’m not a lawyer. All I can do, I told her, is listen and, at her persistent request, tell Jamir’s story.
Jamir’s predicament reveals much about the dysfunction of the Asbury Park school district. This dysfunction didn’t begin with now-Commissioner of Education Lamont Repollet and now-Division Chief of Student Services Carolyn Marano. But while they were in Asbury Park the trend continued and under their hand-picked successors tumbles ever downwards. This is bad enough for staff, some of whom contact me despite a ban by Superintendent Sancha Gray, whom Repollet brought in as his assistant and set up for superintendency. (See the email sent by Gray at the bottom of this post.) It’s especially bad in Student Services, now run by Kristie Howard, one of Repollet’s pals who got to go on the Ghana junket that was falsely advertised as an enrichment opportunity for students and who hosted a fundraiser for now-Governor Phil Murphy. (Sancha Gray went to Ghana too.)
Yes, it’s bad for staff members. But the real heartbreak is the predicament of Asbury Park students, almost all Black or Latinx and at least half of whom are economically-disadvantaged. For example, at Barack Obama Elementary School the percentage of third-grade students who can read at grade level — a critical indicator for future academic achievement — is 11 percent. A policy instituted by Repollet call “The 64 Floor” makes it impossible for students to fail any high school class, even in cases of chronic absenteeism. Sancha Gray continues the 64 Floor policy, which effectively dumbs down expectations for students and teachers, a mindset Repollet is exercising at the Department of Education through his (and Governor Murphy’s) determination to eliminate standardized end-of-course assessments.
And then there’s Jamir whose academic progress — or lack thereof — is in the lap of Repollet and Marano’s successors.
Jamir’s grandmother told me that she has primary responsibility for his care, although not formal custody. He was placed at Barack Obama Elementary School but he struggled. She knew something was wrong — she had him tested and he was diagnosed with ADHD — but she had to “force” the Student Services Department to classify him as eligible for special education services. “They dragged their feet big time,” she said. (I’ve been told by staff that there’s enormous pressure to not classify students to bring down the cost of special education and this started with Marano.)
The district moved him — Jamir’s grandmother says they “kicked him out” — to Bradley Elementary School, most likely because Bradley serves more students with disabilities. (According to the state database, at Barack Obama Elementary only 7.4 percent of students have disabilities, compared to 16.2 percent two years ago; Bradley serves 17.5 percent of students with disabilities, steeply down from 28.4 percent two years ago.) Jamir’s grandmother reports that the teachers were “very unprofessional.” Child Study Team members tell me that the district has failed to hire adequate behavorial specialists and there has been “a big push” to not classify children who need services.
Jamir was forced to leave Bradley too, even though by that time the district had created an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that his mom had signed. IEP’s include placements. If the placement is changed, the IEP has to be changed and agreed to by parents or guardians. Jamir’s IEP, according to his grandmother, wasn’t changed.
(Via anonymous staff members: the district has held IEP meetings and changed IEP’s without notifying parents; when Child Study Team members recommend that a child should repeat kindergarten due to trauma or emotional development delays their requests are ignored; administrators approve IEP’s that lack any goals or objectives.)
As of this post Jamir has been out of school for six months. His grandma says, “when they say he’s bad, he starts to believe them.”
Jamir’s grandmother went to the principal. She says he “didn’t know anything.” She called Clement Bramley, the Interim Director of Special Services but he always says “I’m not available.” (She commented to me, “not only is he unavailable to me on the phone, he’s unavailable to help my grandson.”)
“My grandchild has been deprived of education,” she said. “This child has a right to be in school but the school says they’re not equipped for him. The district doesn’t care about this child. I run off worksheets for him but it’s not the same. I just want what’s best for my grandchild but he’s lost so much education that he can’t regain.”
The district, she says, now admits that Jamir is eligible for compensatory services; specifically, she says they acknowledged “they owe him time” because they “kept him out of school after I forced them to classify him.” She wants Jamir back with his peers at one of Asbury Park’s three elementary schools.
But the district wants to enroll him in a private special education school called High Point. (The district would pay the approved annual tuition of $74,820.90, plus transportation and summer services.) That’s not what Jamir’s grandmother wants.
There are always at least two sides to every story. I’m sure Asbury Park has theirs. But no school district can disenroll a child, especially one eligible for special education, and not provide a mutually-acceptable program.
I have a feeling there’s more than one Jamir in Asbury Park Public Schools.
EMAIL SENT TO ALL ASBURY PARK STAFF BY SUPERINTENDENT SANCHA GRAY (I’ve omitted all identifying information):
Media policy reminder: Good afternoon, as we approach the end of the school year and begin the season of celebrations, I wanted to reiterate that students and all staff (i.e. coaches) are not permitted to speak to the media without securing permission from me first. I have attached a copy of district policy 9400 for your convenience. Please feel free to contact me with any concerns.
Sancha K. Gray