Morris Superintendent: Where We Stand on Districtwide Integration Today

BY PAUL RIEDE/School Administrator, November 2017

Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast says refugees have added to the diversity of the Morris, N.J., schools.
In his third year as superintendent of the Morris School District in Morristown, N.J., Mackey Pendergrast, 52, says he is proud to be part of the district’s unique history of effective integration and is committed to maintaining it in a world where demographic trends bring steep challenges.

School Administrator talked with Pendergrast about the Morris district’s success story, which began with a state-ordered merger in 1971 and has continued ever since. The district’s history of integration is the basis of a recent report by the Center for Diversity and Equality in Education titled “Remedying School Segregation: How New Jersey’s Morris School District Chose to Make Diversity Work.” The recent conversation with freelance writer Paul Riede appears here, edited for length and clarity.

You came to Morris from a nearby district that is quite wealthy and quite homogenous. What are some of the differences you can see day-to-day in the Morris district as a result of its diversity?
PENDERGRAST: It’s a completely different conversation when you talk about climate and culture. In the Morris School District, it’s a much greater focus. It’s a much greater part of the education for the students. Quite frankly, it was very rarely part of the conversation in the previous district, about the importance of diversity, the learning from diversity and inclusion. ... Here in the Morris School District it is certainly an important factor that we weigh in making decisions and it’s a very important factor to weigh in the education of the students. … How do we best address the various issues that come along with racial and socioeconomic variables? It’s a big part of our daily conversation here.

In looking over the history of the district and from your current work there, how do you see the district as being able to maintain such a high level of diversity when so many other districts have been unable to do so?
That’s the $64,000 question as to how. It’s always how. In some degree everybody’s looking for the secret sauce. Everybody is looking for the formula. I think that one of the critical elements in any school district is that you have to have a board of education that truly embraces these core values and is willing to partner with school administrators and teachers and community leaders in making it happen in the most authentic way possible. ….  This school district, from what I can tell, has had a highly engaged, highly intelligent board of education that is committed to the highest quality dialogue on this issue and other issues, and it’s had that for a very long time.

From a strictly educational point of view, why is diversity important?
I think at its core level, education is about preparation for life. When you break it down to its most essential, fundamental level, a pre-K-12 school district is about preparing students for life. More than ever before, our lives and the lives of our children are dependent on having an open mind and understanding different cultures, different perspectives, different ideas. I think that for students who are living every single day in a diverse culture, an environment where you are living these lessons instead of merely learning about them, there is intrinsic value in that experience.

I think that more than ever before in the history of the world we see that an understanding of different cultures is a critical component to being successful in life. In fact many of our graduates, when they come back and talk to us, they very often if not always talk about how valuable that part of their learning experience has been in their lives. ... Today it’s critical that students are globally competent, and it’s difficult to say that we are adequately preparing students to have global competency if they are not understanding other perspectives and cultures.

Once a district has achieved diversity, it doesn’t just keep going on its own. It has to be managed and maintained in a changing society. The biggest increase in diversity in your district now is students coming in from troubled Central American countries. How much of your time and effort is devoted to not just making sure the numbers are right, but ensuring that true diversity is occurring?
When we’re taking about diversity today, we don’t want to use the word diversity unless we’re using the word inclusion along with it. We want to make sure that all of our students have access and opportunity and are included in all the different types of learning that take place in a school system.

Certainly, immigration is an issue that the whole nation and other nations are struggling with, and it poses unique challenges to school systems. Many of these students are really refugees. It’s a conversation that’s probably not happening at the appropriate depth in our nation. These are families and students who are coming from extraordinarily difficult circumstances and they have tremendous needs. So this does bring new challenges to our school system that require us to be creative and requires us to rethink practices and budgets and all sorts of things.

It is of course a constant challenge because the challenges in our nation change. It’s never one constant thing. The conditions that existed in 1975 are different from those in 1995 or 2017. But the value remains the same. We feel that the goal is to have a healthy community. If you have a healthy community, community members, students, parents and teachers are working hard to understand and partner with each other for the success of the child.

So even though the challenges are different in 2017 than they were in 2007 or 1977, the aspirational values are the same. And I do think it’s in the commitment to those values of learning from each other and taking care of each other that success will happen. I don’t think success will happen unless you have a healthy community.

You have to come out of the gate really focused on having a healthy community and all the things that are important to being a healthy community if you ever want to have ultimate success in academic learning and preparing students for college and other challenges in life. I don’t think the highest levels of academic learning and closing achievement gaps are possible unless you have a healthy community. The healthy community has to come first, and then the other things are possible.

The Century Foundation report says some people in the minority community believe the district is catering to white students to keep them in the district. Meanwhile, some white parents are concerned that there are too many resources going into working with students from different cultures who speak different languages. When you have diversity, sometimes you have greater rifts. Do you find this difficult to manage?
PENDERGRAST: I think that No. 1, you have to blow up the myth that you can’t do both things at once. You absolutely, positively can create meaningful pathways through all of your schools that different types of students can get on for success no matter what their background. So if kids who are coming into the school district who are two, three or four grade levels behind in reading and writing and there are students of the same age who are two or three grade levels ahead in reading and writing, we have multiple pathways in all of our schools to ascend and improve and learn and prepare them for life after they graduate high school. It’s a myth that you can’t do both things at once. It’s a fundamentally flawed premise, but you’re right, certainly a lot of people believe that.

How do you deal with that?
PENDERGRAST: We talk a lot around here about trust as our currency, and that the way that you manage some of these difficult issues is that you have to have a transparent environment and you have to have an environment where there’s an emphasis on dialogue and conversation and listening. … Trust doesn’t happen by empty promises. Trust happens through transparency and accountability and honest dialogue, and we really do focus on those things here. You can’t hide from those things in today’s world. Maybe you can get by for a little while without them, but not for long. The world is too complex.

What do you — and what should others — glean from the Morris experience?
I think we all want to belong to a community that is dedicated to our highest aspirations, and it’s critical to stay focused on those goals of creating stronger, healthier communities. I think that’s the lesson to be learned from the Morris School District. It’s the commitment to healthy communities.

I think we’ve borrowed from Thomas Friedman of The New York Times from his book Thank You for Being Late. There’s a focus in the book on creating healthy communities. I don’t think it’s a new concept. It’s just the latest language. Those attributes were there in the early ‘70s when the Morris School District was created, and that focus has been carried through from the original founders of the district. We face new challenges today, and we have new tools. But I think that the formula is the same.

The Century Foundation suggests that the district may have benefited by remaining under the national radar for so long despite its unique story and warned that its report might “blow your cover.” Do you welcome the attention or is it a distraction?
No district wants to be pigeon-holed into being this kind of district or that kind of district. … We look at ourselves as a really successful school district where we celebrate diversity and we celebrate our successes and we celebrate each other and we are committed to the highest academic goals and virtues. .…

We see each other in so many different tones, colors and languages and we want to celebrate all of that. But it has not been a distraction. More than anything it’s been an opportunity for us to reassess our values and to reassess whether the people who started the Morris School District back in the 1970s would be proud of our actions today. Are we fulfilling the vision that they had 45 years ago? Would they be proud of where we are or would they want us to be further along?