WEST ORANGE, NJ — On Sept. 26, the West Orange Board of Education unanimously approved the revised district strategic plan and corresponding action items, which emphasize the goal of improving student achievement during the next five years.
The revised plan and actions, devised and presented by Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky and Assistant Superintendent Eveny de Mendez during the board’s meeting, specifically call for district performance to increase to the top 25th percentile by 2021.
The plan’s action items break down exactly what such an improvement would look like for each subject and grade level. For instance, it states that 60 to 70 percent of students in kindergarten to fifth grade — elementary school — should meet or exceed the Fountas & Pinnell instructional level expectations for reading, or demonstrate adequate reading level growth by June 2018. Students in grades six to eight and nine to 12 — middle and high school, respectively — will meanwhile take three benchmark English assessments per year; baseline scores will be established in June 2017 for students in middle school, and in June 2018 for high school students. According to the action items, median scores for middle school students are expected to increase by 12 percent from the baseline by June 2021, while 80 percent of high school students are expected to meet pre-established goals by June 2019.
For math, 50 percent of economically disadvantaged and 40 percent of special education elementary school students will be expected to meet or exceed PARCC and district benchmark assessment expectations, or demonstrate adequate PARCC math level growth, by June 2021. Students in middle school will take three quarterly benchmark assessments per year, with a baseline to be established in June 2017, and an increase of 12 percent from that baseline expected in June 2021. And the WOSD wants the percentage of Algebra I students meeting the desired performance level on the standard math proficiency assessment to increase from 62.9 percent to 74.9 percent by June 2021.
Overall, the action items specify a 10-percent increase on the PARCC exam each year. Among other expectations, they also call for the graduation rate to increase from 86 to 91 percent, and the percentage of students scoring above 1550 out of 1600 on the SAT to grow from 36.8 to 43.8 percent.
The benchmark assessments will be a key method of ensuring that student achievement improves, which is why it is listed as an objective in the revised plan. According to its related action items, the tests will be developed by an assessment committee that will research the critical components of benchmark exams before creating its own. The action items state that the assessments should all produce data that will be used to “meaningfully inform instruction and improve student performance.” The WOSD will also monitor student progress to make sure it meets expectations.
But the benchmark assessments will not be the only means used to improve student achievement. Another objective of the revised plan is to establish an aligned instructional system that combines a comprehensive curriculum, assessment, professional development, instructional information and student-support services. According to the action items, this system will be monitored and revised until curricular cohesion is fully realized.
While the WOSD is confident that the measures will lead to improved student achievement, not everyone is so sure. In fact, West Orange Cares About Schools co-founder Robin Isserles questioned why such an emphasis on improvement is necessary in the first place. Isserles told the West Orange Chronicle that she would like to know what prompted the district to include that objective in the plan, as well as the data used for the desired percentage increases. She said she would not put too much faith in PARCC standards if they are what played a major role in the district’s reasoning.
Rutzky, de Mendez and Board of Education President Laura Lab did not respond to requests for comment before press time Oct. 11.
Even if improving student achievement is crucial, Isserles said she disagrees with the use of three benchmark assessments, saying students are already tested enough with the PARCC exam and less attention is being given to classroom learning. And the revised plan does little to change that, she said.
“It seems like we’re developing a curriculum that aligns to tests, whether they be benchmark or PARCC or whatever,” Isserles said in an Oct. 10 phone interview. “Shouldn’t we be designing the evaluation of student achievement around the curriculum that we want our kids to learn? That isn’t coming through in these goals, to me at least. It just seems backwards.”
Isserles, who is a college professor, hopes that West Orange teachers will take the lead in crafting any benchmark assessments used. After all, she said, teachers are leading student instruction and thus know what has to be on the exam. And while the action items do include teachers in the list of staff to be involved with the assessment committee, Isserles was concerned to see that they were not on the list for the committee meant to create the aligned curriculum. Mentioned instead were the assistant superintendent, curriculum supervisors and the district testing coordinator.
According to Isserles, this is in line with the West Orange Education Association’s ongoing complaints about a lack of respect from the district.
“There’s obviously an exclusion of our most valued professionals,” Isserles said. “We’ve heard people make testimony at Board of Ed meetings, but I don’t see anything in this plan that shows me there is going to be a change and that teachers will be at the forefront of creating (the aligned curriculum).”
In addition to the aligned curriculum and benchmark assessments, the revised plan calls for an increased focus on getting students to read at or above grade level. To do this, the action items recommend providing reading instruction-related professional development to teachers as well as integrating interactive read-aloud texts into the curriculum, among other ideas. Aside from reading, the plan also suggests continuing to expand science, technology, engineering, art and math education through methods including the following: developing a high school CTE STEM program, revising the elementary and middle school science curricula to include engineering and design components, and increasing the number of STEAM electives for grades four and above.
On top of that, the revised plan and actions related to student achievement stipulate that a comprehensive school counseling program should be implemented for all grade levels to improve students’ preparedness for college and careers. Action items for that objective include completing an analysis to determine what is needed in the current program, developing an advisory council to set priorities for the program and hosting career fairs featuring members of the local community. The final objective advises the district to evaluate and redesign a gifted and talented program for all district students, with related actions specifying that such a program should include a variety of pathways aligned to student abilities, exit and entrance criteria, and equitable access to all students.
Not every objective or action concerns student achievement, though. Another major goal of the plan is to foster a 21st-century learning environment through four different objectives, each covering aspects of security and innovation.
The first objective calls for the alleviation of overcrowding in the WOSD’s elementary schools, with corresponding actions dictating that a population feasibility study be conducted and an action plan formulated based on its findings. The second objective deals with updating the district’s technology by improving the elementary schools’ wireless connections by adding more access points, and ensuring that all student and teacher Chromebooks are configured with SMART Board software. The third objective focuses on improving district safety by relocating polling sites outside the schools, looking into the possibility of adding sidewalks and continuing to install cameras. Lastly, the fourth objective and its affiliated action involves using the New Jersey School Board Association’s grant-writing department to identify opportunities to fund school projects.
The third and fourth goals respectively relate to instilling holistic health and wellness in students and facilitating parent, school and community engagement. The actions connected to the former include developing school wellness committees, encouraging physical activity sessions in elementary school classrooms and working with the district’s food provider to offer healthier options. Actions for the latter cover recruiting multilingual parents and staff to join the WOSD’s public relations committee, inviting alumni to speak about career options to middle and high school students, and holding question-and-answer sessions regarding district initiatives or events.
Despite her objections regarding the measurement of student achievement, Isserles said that she was pleased by several aspects of the revised plan and action items. Among them, she said she liked the concepts of the question-and-answer sessions and promoting health and wellness, but added that she wished the creative arts had more of a presence within the objectives.
As for whether the plan will be successful, Isserles said it is too early to tell. She hopes it will work — as long as it does not come at the expense of what is important.
“I hope that in the process of carrying out these objectives and goals we also don’t lose sight of what meaningful learning is and should be in our classrooms,” Isserles said.