WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Board of Education officially acknowledged that Thomas A. Edison Middle School’s “focus school” status has been removed and was notified that the school had met all eligibility requirements as of June 30.
New Jersey defines a focus school as having “the overall lowest subgroup performance, a graduation rate below 75 percent and the widest gaps in achievement between different subgroups of students.” Edison Middle School, home to sixth-graders districtwide, was designated a focus school in 2011, and has worked to close the achievement gaps that led to that status.
“It really is an amazing feat in what’s been able to be done in the last couple of years at Edison,” Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky said at the school board meeting Monday, Sept. 18. “To have the focus school status removed is a real tribute to the wonderful professionals in that building.”
At the meeting, Edison Principal Xavier Fitzgerald recognized the hard work of his staff.
“Five years ago we started this journey that they call ‘focus school.’ And the state came in and looked at us and said ‘By .02 of a point you are a focus school and Mr. Fitzgerald, we really don’t know why we are here,’” Fitzgerald said at the meeting. “Then after a year, they really didn’t know why they were at Edison Middle School so they began to look at our schedule, they began to look at our structure and what was going on in the classroom, they began to see we were doing what was needed. But more was needed.”
Fitzgerald expressed his frustration about the years that Edison had the status, saying it was not a happy time for him to be at work.
“My staff will tell you, I was not a happy camper. It’s like when the Giants lose to the Dallas Cowboys,” he joked. “The next day is not a happy day. And so for the last few years, it wasn’t a happy year.”
According to a July BOE press release, Edison Middle School switched to block scheduling to improve teaching time with students. English language arts and math classes were strengthened, and new teachers were hired to make class sizes smaller. Benchmark testing and the Marzano Model for teacher evaluation also helped the process along.
“This gave me the opportunity to not only hold a mirror up to myself as an administrator, but to hold up a mirror to my staff and say ‘maybe there are things that we need to do that could improve the learning environment and the structure that we give our students,’” Fitzgerald said. “Not just the students that get it, but those that aren’t getting it — those are the students that we needed to reach.”
Assistant Principal Steven Melendez said that Edison having focus school status taught teachers and administrators in the middle school a lot about themselves, and acknowledged the teachers and counselors who worked to change the school for the better.
“I think in the end we became better,” Melendez said at the meeting. “It’s been a tremendous journey and we really pulled together as a team. It’s taught us a lot about the practices that we provide to our students, because we all know that’s why we’re here. We’re here to support them and help them grow academically and socially. We became a better school and that’s something that we will carry with us.”
BOE member Mark Robertson’s daughter is currently a student at Edison, and he expressed his pleasure with how Fitzgerald and Melendez have improved the school.
“This took a lot of courage,” Robertson said at the meeting. “You dug deep and looked at things to change and areas to improve and you have a great team of teachers. You’re doing some really exciting things at Edison and it’s something that any parent and child should be excited about.”
Although Edison is no longer a state-designated focus school, Fitzgerald said he and the staff still have work to do.
“It does not stop just because we lost that status and I’ve made that perfectly clear to the staff this year,” he said. “There’s still a lot more work to do.”