WEST ORANGE, NJ — Most West Orange students who recently returned to school were met with new initiatives designed to improve their learning experience and better prepare them for the future.
The West Orange School District this year implemented departmentalization for grades four and five, meaning students at those levels will now report to multiple teachers, each specializing in a particular subject area. Meanwhile, students in grades six through 12 will receive instruction based on the Next Generation Science Standards, a state-adopted approach developed by a consortium of 26 states and several national organizations that encourages more in-depth engagement with scientific concepts.
The former initiative is intended to enhance the classroom experience for both students and teachers, according to Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky in a Sept. 5 email to the West Orange Chronicle. He said that by narrowing the scope of their instruction, departmentalized teachers will become well-versed in their subjects and will be able to focus on using best practices for particular content. As a result, he said students will receive higher-quality instruction in each subject — making it a win-win situation for all involved.
“Through a collaborative team model, West Orange expects to provide greater opportunities for rigorous and relevant content area instruction, active student engagement with the content and increased student performance around the core,” Rutzky said.
The way departmentalization is being carried out varies according on the number of teachers a school employs for each grade level. Teachers will be paired to share subject areas in schools with an even number of fourth- and fifth-grade instructors, with one teacher handling English language arts and social studies instruction and the other taking on math and science. In schools with an odd number of teachers, one will oversee English language arts; one will cover math; and another will teach science, social studies and writer’s workshop. For all schools, students will travel to lunch and special classes, such as art and gym, with their homeroom classes.
Even with this new schedule, teachers will still use their existing curricular models, such as reader’s workshop and math block, in addition to offering a period called “independent/intervention,” for exercises such as solitary student reading and writing, small group instruction and enrichment activities. Also, they also will have time for interdisciplinary team planning, content-based grade level meetings and professional learning opportunities concentrated on their specific subject matter. That way, Rutzky said, the teachers will have the opportunity to collaboratively plan and develop instructional strategies to help individual student needs, while the district can provide professional learning opportunities to its staff.
And though departmentalization has only just begun in West Orange, the superintendent already seems confident it will have a beneficial effect. In particular, he said that it leads to an integrated approach to learning — thereby alleviating the “instructional imbalance” that is seen with subjects that are not found in standardized tests, such as social studies.
Rutzky is not the only one excited about departmentalization. Board of Education President Laura Lab said the concept will allow for a greater depth of study in all subjects and enhance literacy across the curriculum. Additionally, Lab said that children will have the chance to move around more throughout the day and experience different teaching styles. She said this will prepare them for middle school, where students travel from teacher to teacher for each class.
Plus, Lab said faculty members gain a lot from the departmentalized model as well.
“The teachers will be able to streamline their lesson plans and preparation to specific content areas and focus more in-depth on their assignment of a subject area,” Lab told the Chronicle in a Sept. 5 email. “This will have a positive impact and will play to the teachers’ strengths and interests.”
The Next Generation Science Standards also are a boon to the district, Rutzky said, thanks to its “three-dimensional approach” to science education that provides students with the “tools and skills necessary to succeed in a rapidly changing world.” Unlike the science standards from previous years, he said the Next Generation Science Standards include performance expectations that move beyond memorizing facts. Rather, they offer a whole new way of learning science.
“The new standards emphasize what students should be able to do rather than what they should know,” Rutzky said. “Student readiness for college and careers will depend on their abilities to process, apply, analyze and evaluate information. It is likely that today’s students will have jobs that don’t yet exist. High-level analytical skills, creative problem solving and an understanding of human impact on natural resources prepare students to be responsible global leaders in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”
The new standards enable this by focusing on the following three concepts: core ideas, or basic scientific principles; science and engineering practices, or the skills that must be used to study phenomena; and crosscutting concepts, or overarching themes found across a number of scientific topics. By weaving these three areas into its expectations, the new science standards are intended to ensure that students develop a basic knowledge of science as well as an understanding of how scientists and engineers conduct their work.
This means students will have more opportunities for hands-on learning engagement; Lab pointed out that students in grades six through 12 will be exposed to engineering design, arguing from evidence, data analysis and finding patterns. As a result, she said they will be required to think critically, reason and use creativity.
And those are concepts that will definitely be useful to all students throughout their lives, Rutzky said, even if they do not pursue a career in science.
“A solid science background prepares students to be informed citizens, knowledgeable consumers and leaders in the workforce,” Rutzky said.
The Next Generation Science Standards were implemented this year at the behest of the state Department of Education, which called for a 2016 rollout for grades six through 12 after the state School Board adopted the standards in 2014. Rutzky said that the WOSD will put the new science standards into effect for students in kindergarten through fifth grade in 2017, adding that 2017 might see the implementation of departmentalization in West Orange’s third-grade classes.
As for future school initiatives, Lab said she would be in favor of any that have a positive effect on children.
“I’m always interested in continuing to present to our students exciting curriculum that makes them want to come to school to learn, to be excited to get to class and know that they will leave school that day thinking and questioning new subject areas,” Lab said.