Superintendent candidate peppered with questions at forum

Philip Meara, who is seeking to be Lawrence’s next superintendent of school, answered questions from the public ranging from the achievement gap between different student groups, special education, and test scores.

By:Lea Kahn Staff Writer
School District superintendent who would like to become Lawrence’s next superintendent of schools, was introduced to the community at a special forum Wednesday night.
   More than 50 township residents, including a smattering of teachers, turned out to meet Mr. Meara, who is one of two finalists for the top administrative post in the Lawrence school district. The forum at the Lawrence High School library capped his daylong visit to the district. The second finalist has declined to make his name public, according to Laura Waters, school board president.
   Mr. Meara said he applied for the position of superintendent and met with the Lawrence school board. The board asked him many questions about children and education, and that discussion gave him "a clue that the district is going in the right direction," he said.
   "You have a school system you ought to be proud of. I would love to part of it, if you will choose me," Mr. Meara told the audience.
   The audience peppered Mr. Meara with questions, ranging from his opinion on some of the challenges facing the district to how he would close the achievement gap for minorities and how he would deal with the special education program.
   One of the challenges facing the school district is its diverse student population, he said. While a diverse district is more representative of the "real world," that diversity can be used against the district, he said.
   For example, the federal No Child Left Behind legislation requires test scores of various subgroups — children with learning disabilities, children whose first language is not English and children from economically disadvantaged households — are to be reported separately, he said.
   The overall test scores of the district may be as high as they have been in the past, but the test scores of some of the subgroups may be lower than the overall test results, he said. The lower test scores may create a negative perception of the district, overshadowing the good things that are occurring, he said.
   Asked how he would close the achievement gap between black students and white students, Mr. Meara cited the efforts undertaken in the Freehold Borough School District, such as an extended school day.
   It is important to reach children when they are very young, he said. In his present school district, children can arrive as early as 7:15 a.m. There is after-school care until 5:45 p.m. The district tries to develop after-school programs that are of interest to students that also include an element of academics, he said.
   Mr. Meara also pointed to differentiated instruction, which means teachers determine the best way to teach each child. Every child has a specific learning style, and differentiated instruction tries to reach that student. The goal is to move the students forward on an individual basis, he said.
   Asked how he would handle the lack of leadership in the district’s special education program, Mr. Meara said the newly created position of director of student services will be filled.
   The district had a director of pupil services, but the job was eliminated in 2001 by former Superintendent of Schools Max Riley. He created two supervisory positions — one for all child study teams and one for all special education staff.
   The director of student services would oversee two supervisors of child study teams and special education, and also work with guidance counselors and nursing staff. The child study teams are called upon when it appears that a student may need to be enrolled in the district’s special education program.
   The special education department is being reconstructed and leadership is on the way, he said. The trend of bringing special education students back into the Lawrence district from out-of-district schools where they have been sent is good. It presents an opportunity to serve the students in their home school district, he added.

Related story:
Distirct finalist tours Lawrence schools (Jan. 5)