WEST ORANGE, NJ — The strategic plan presented to the West Orange Board of Education in August calls on the district to make changes to its facilities and curriculum so that its students will be safer, healthier and more prepared for life in the 21st century after they graduate.
The plan, put together by the New Jersey School Board Association following three communitywide feedback meetings, offers four main goals that the WOSD should strive to accomplish over the next three to five years. The first two deal with ensuring that township children are given the tools to thrive in the modern world. Specifically, Goal 1 urges the district to create a safe environment with modern facilities and 21st-century programs, and Goal 2 requires the WOSD to prepare students with 21st-century skills and knowledge for future success.
The other two goals attempt to help West Orange children through different methods. For Goal 3, the plan calls on the district to elevate its commitment to students’ wellness by attending to both their bodies and minds. Goal 4 insists on the maximization of two-way communication between the WOSD and the community through inclusiveness and optimal transparency.
Though Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky was not involved in creating the plan, he was impressed by the finished result. He particularly lauded the “really fabulous work” done by the parents, teachers and students who contributed ideas to the planning process. Their efforts produced a document that he said will greatly help the WOSD moving forward.
“It gives direction to the district,” Rutzky told the West Orange Chronicle in an Aug. 26 phone interview. “It helps everybody understand what the priorities are and what we’re working toward.”
The strategic plan has also enabled the district to write a corresponding action plan, which Rutzky said is still being finished but should be ready to be presented at the board’s Sept. 26 meeting. This plan will consist of specific tactics for accomplishing the four goals, based on their objectives.
For its first two goals, the strategic plan suggests similar objectives that are related to improving the students’ learning environment. They include expanding facilities to address overcrowding and eliminate trailers, as well as ensuring that every child has a safe route to school. There is also a clear focus on technology needs, with ideas such as modernizing buildings to support technological needs; expanding the science, technology, engineering, arts and math curriculum across all grades; and providing every student with access to technology.
Increasing access to technology is indeed essential in today’s learning environment, Rutzky said, adding that is why the WOSD created its one-to-one initiative providing every student in grades three through 12 with a Chromebook in addition to placing five computers in every kindergarten through grade two classroom. Having a technology component in the strategic plan will allow the district to improve upon its facilities even further, the superintendent said.
“There are buildings that were built over 100 years ago, and they were not built with the understanding that we were going to be having Chromebooks and iPads as very valuable and motivating resources to learning,” Rutzky said. “We have to understand that sometimes it’s the facility that keeps us from doing certain things. So part of the strategic plan is really evaluating all of that and determining what we can do over a period of time and what is the cost going to be associated with those changes, and exactly how will it impact positive student achievement.”
The objectives of Goal 3 concern making students healthier by offering them the opportunity to move during the day, encouraging healthy food choices and allowing curricular flexibility to enrich learning. And the objectives of Goal 4 seek to benefit students with the help of outside community members by possibly creating a parent/teacher public relations committee, establishing an alumni/parent program to expose children to various career paths, and committing to streamlined communication and transparency.
In an Aug. 29 phone interview with the Chronicle, Board of Education Vice President Mark Robertson agreed that having an open relationship between the WOSD and the West Orange community is helpful for everyone. He said giving students, parents and residents a voice strengthens their partnership and encourages involvement. He added that the district can better serve the community if people are able to offer feedback.
“If we’re not getting input,” Robertson said, “then we cannot continuously improve. We need that input. We need that data.”
Robertson suggested that the district conduct detailed climate surveys one to two times per year to get a sense of how people feel about the district. And that wasn’t the only idea he had to expand upon the strategic plan.
In order to offset tax dollars, Robertson said the district should look into partnerships and sponsorships from corporations and foundations that could also provide internship opportunities to students. Similarly, he said the WOSD should ask its alumni to offer internships and mentorships. In addition, he said he would like to see focus programs for economically disadvantaged students, better integration of standardized test prep into the curriculum and a concerted effort to improve West Orange’s lowest performing schools.
Echoing sentiments from the board meeting at which the plan was presented, Robertson added that he wants to see the WOSD’s state academic rankings increase to the top 25 percent, something he sees as realistic, and that he expects to happen. Touting the district’s strong administrators, award-winning teachers and innovative programming, the vice president said it is bound to happen.
“If we continue in those directions, we are going to be a top-performing school district,” Robertson said, adding that expectations for district students will be raised as a result. “Not every kid’s cut out for college. But we should have the expectation that most of our kids should be going to college — the vast majority. And we should provide them with the counseling and guidance, with the academic and career development tools and the resources to have that opportunity.”
Robertson might want to add a lot to the strategic plan, but he is thrilled that roughly 65 community members took part in the planning meetings and approximately 280 filled out corresponding input surveys online. Charlene Peterson, the NJSBA field representative who helped lead the process, was also impressed by the community’s support. Peterson told the Chronicle that there was a real camaraderie among the residents who attended the meetings last November, December and January. She said that one could clearly see how much they care about their school district.
Now that the strategic plan is completed, Peterson said the WOSD can take the community’s ideas and focus resources on achieving them. And Robin Isserles, co-founder of parents’ group West Orange Cares About Schools, certainly hopes that takes place. Isserles attended two of the meetings and was glad the district offered the opportunity to let residents speak about issues that concerned them. She said it is important for any major organization like a school district to have a feedback mechanism.
But Isserles is not convinced that anything will come of having a strategic plan. The district parent said that it seems to her the WOSD is not always as receptive to people’s ideas as it should be. At most, she said, she is “cautiously optimistic.”
“I’m hopeful that this wasn’t just a pro-forma exercise,” Isserles told the Chronicle in an Aug. 29 phone interview. “I’m hoping that there’s a bit of a culture change, where people’s voices — whether they be teachers or administrators or parents or students, even — are taken with the respect and the seriousness that they deserve.”
According to Robertson, the board will vote to approve the strategic plan — and all changes made to it since the board made recommendations at its special July 27 meeting — at its Sept. 26 meeting. The district’s action plan should also be presented at that time.