WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Board of Education postponed a vote on the English Language Learners Program at its May 21 meeting, after board members decided they want to hear more feedback from parents and community members about the program changes proposed by Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Eveny de Mendez and world language supervisor Felix Plata at the meeting. The five-year “Preparing Multilingual Learners for Global Competence” plan aims to make changes to the district’s English Language Learners and World Language programs.
According to de Mendez and Plata, more than 1,500 students in the district live in homes that speak languages other than English. Fifty different languages are spoken in West Orange homes and 623 current students were born in 68 countries. There are 260 ELL students in the district — 157 at the elementary school level, 31 in the middle schools and 72 at West Orange High School.
The plan proposes that ELL elementary school students be consolidated at either Washington or Gregory elementary school, while students who are in both the ELL and special education programs remain at Kelly Elementary School. If a child is an ELL student at Redwood Elementary School or a non-special education student at Kelly, they will attend Washington. ELL students from Hazel, Mt. Pleasant and St. Cloud elementary schools will attend Gregory.
According to de Mendez, the consolidation of ELL students would increase opportunities for co-planning, mixing ELL with general education, professional development for teachers and greater parent support.
The program, which is built on a five-year plan, also aims to give seventh-graders the option to take either French, Italian, Mandarin or Spanish, an option that students in grades eight through 12 have. Currently, seventh-graders only have the option to take Spanish.
“For the ELL students, that would help them to effectively communicate in English as well as strengthen their native language, which currently we don’t offer,” de Mendez said at the meeting. “For the world language student, that would mean we continue to strengthen their primary language as well as that secondary language. We see the rich diversity in languages and cultures in the West Orange community and this recognizes those various perspectives and how they affect industry, academia and international business.”
Consolidating ELL students at Washington and Gregory will also provide greater support to parents in the community, de Mendez said.
“We can develop some type of institute, we can have classes on how to support your child in doing their homework when you don’t speak English, ESL classes for adults and help parents become a part of the school community,” de Mendez said. “We want our parents to feel that the school community is welcoming and open to receive all students and be able to address them in their native language.”
Transportation was addressed in the presentation, due to the fact that students would not be attending their neighborhood school if the ELL plan is approved. Three buses would cost the district $13,306.23 to take students to and from Washington and Gregory.
“Currently, when they’re spread across seven schools, that’s organizing transportation for seven schools,” Plata said. “With this consolidation model we’ll now have more of a focus on transporting them to a location and they can develop a community among themselves. We can look at the ELL parents as a resource to tap into to support the learning both culturally as well as instructionally in the classroom.”
Current ELL teachers will also be moved to either Washington or Gregory so that students can work with the same educators and maintain consistency and familiarity with them.
Plata said another goal of the plan is for students to become literate in more than one language by the time they graduate from WOHS. That program is already in place, with 18 biliterate students graduating last year, but Plata wants to see more in the future.
“The vision for the future is to increase that number of students,” Plata said at the meeting. “By graduating with the seal of biliteracy, they truly demonstrate being able to communicate through reading, speaking, listening and writing at high levels in multiple languages.”
Several BOE members had major concerns about the consolidation model.
“My concern is that if I’m looking for a house to buy in West Orange and I buy a house on Colonial Woods Drive, my children can walk to Mt. Pleasant and they can walk to Liberty,” BOE President Ron Charles said. “Then we implement this and my kids are headed all the way to either Washington or Gregory. Fundamentally, I think that’s flawed.”
Vice President Mark Robertson also had concerns about moving ELL students to only two elementary schools.
“I do have concerns that without intent we’ve created a self-segregated area in Washington School and that disturbs me,” Robertson said at the meeting. “But I do see the benefit of creating a model parallel to the special education program. I do see that there’s the opportunity for greater inclusion. I see there’s the opportunity for better instruction.”
Robertson also has concerns about the world language aspect of the plan, saying that while the goal Plata mentioned of creating an immersion language program is a good one, the current scheduling system does not allow for it.
“If the system truly delivered bilingual education for ELL students and delivered world language immersion for English-speaking students, I think we would really have something special,” he said. “The truth is that, until we address world languages in block scheduling for K to five — the point in life when kids are learning the fastest — until we address that, world language for K to five is a joke.”
Robertson said that although a lot of research and planning has gone into Plata and de Mendez’s presentation, he would like to hear more feedback about it from those who work in the district as well as parents and community members.
“I think there should be more feedback from parents of ELL kids, I feel that there should be more feedback from parents of English-speaking kids who are at the schools where you’re creating this as well as the schools where the kids will be leaving,” Robertson said. “I think there needs to be feedback from teachers and general education teachers who will be working together in this new model.”