WEST ORANGE, NJ — West Orange Assistant Superintendent Eveny de Mendez and world languages supervisor Felix Plata returned to the West Orange Board of Education with an update to the proposed changes to the English Language Learners program at the June 4 BOE meeting, after board members expressed concerns about the changes presented at the May 21 meeting. The two have received feedback from staff members and parents of ELL students, and the BOE will hear further updates at its June 18 meeting.
If approved, the plan would consolidate ELL elementary school students at either Washington or Gregory elementary schools, while students in both the ELL and special education programs will remain at Kelly Elementary School. Current ELL students at Redwood Elementary School and non-special education ELL students at Kelly, they will attend Washington. ELL students from Hazel, Mt. Pleasant and St. Cloud elementary schools will attend Gregory.
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.
“At our last board meeting the board asked us to communicate more, get feedback, reach out and get feedback from our staff,” de Mendez said at the June 4 meeting. “We met with Gregory staff and we met with our Washington staff. We also met with parents at the West Orange Hispanic Foundation.”
According to de Mendez, the top concern staff members had about the possible changes to the ELL program was professional development and feeling comfortable with their abilities to teach ELL students. If the plan is approved, there will be three days of professional development for staff members in August. BOE President Ron Charles asked de Mendez if three days would be enough time for the necessary professional development.
“Three days will never be sufficient, it’s just a starting point,” de Mendez said. “The teachers absolutely will need more. It would be an ongoing process throughout the year with the support and the material embedded throughout the day.”
Another concern teachers had was the physical space at the schools that would be affected by the changes.
“There were some concerns at Washington with spacing,” de Mendez said. “We did a walkthrough and took a look at the classes and took a look at where the students would be. There will be two extra classrooms that will be needed. One is currently being converted for ELL and one is opening because there is one less class in a grade level.”
The staff at Gregory is also concerned about the use of trailers, which would return if ELL students begin attending the school.
“They are currently up to code,” de Mendez said about the trailers at Gregory. “The strategic plan says we should be moving away from the trailers and we acknowledge that. If we move to this recommendation it would mean that two fifth-grade classes would go back to the trailers.”
BOE member Sandra Mordecai said she is concerned about potentially using trailers again at Gregory.
“I’m not happy about the trailer situation,” she said at the meeting. “We’ve tried for so many years to get rid of the trailers every year, so I’m not happy that we’re going to go back to the trailers. I know, according to the strategic plan, we were supposed to be going in the direction of getting rid of the six trailers and not going back to using them, so that’s a concern for me.”
The staff members at Washington and Gregory were given a survey that 30 teachers had responded to as of the June 4 meeting. According to the survey’s 30 responses, 43 percent of teachers said they would be comfortable with the program changes if they receive professional development. And de Mendez said that some teachers have also already volunteered to teach at another school.
The survey will also be given to teachers at the district’s other elementary schools, and de Mendez and Plata will also be meeting with them.
In discussions de Mendez and Plata held with stakeholders before the June 4 BOE meeting, staff members and parents said they were worried about ELL students leaving their current schools and being taken away from their neighborhoods and friends.
“It is a concern and something that exists,” de Mendez said. “But again, there are competing priorities. When we’re thinking about how we offer students a quality, meaningful education, we have to prioritize.”
Despite those concerns, de Mendez said the program proposal has support among the parents of ELL students.
“Of the parents that responded that have children in the program, we had overwhelming support,” she said. “I think a lot of this is clarification and clearing up some of the myths for the parents.”
One of those myths was a question about where ELL students would be learning in the new school. According to de Mendez, they will not be grouped together in a class, as many parents thought, but will be in classes with general education students, as usual.
“Bringing them to the program would offer a program,” she said. “However, they will be mainstreamed and be going through all their electives and content with everyone else.”
The benefit of the program, if approved, is that ELL students will be able to learn English more proficiently while also learning the general school subjects, de Mendez said.
“It is not true that a student will learn English in one year and, at the end of kindergarten, they will be proficient,” she said. “It takes five to seven years to learn. They may know how to communicate basic English for social everyday life, but we are measuring academic language for academic rigor so that they can compete and be able to succeed with their monolingual peers.”