WEST ORANGE, NJ — Five days after the West Orange Board of Education voted to hire J. Scott Cascone as the new superintendent of the West Orange School District, he started the job. A first-time superintendent who came to West Orange from Old Bridge, Cascone has spent the last few weeks getting to know district students and staff, and gearing up for the first day of school in September. In a phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle on July 26, Cascone, who started in his new position July 15, discussed his plans for West Orange and experiences as an administrator in other districts.
“West Orange is really a microcosm of our larger society,” Cascone said in speaking about why he wanted to leave his job as executive director of academics in Old Bridge for the West Orange post. “I see it as a way to be a model. We can embrace and celebrate that diversity. It’s an exciting opportunity to lead and be that example.”
Cascone has been an educator for 25 years, the last 17 in administration. He started out as an ESL and Spanish language teacher, and was the ESL department head at Manchester Regional High School for three years. He then served as the assistant principal at Morris Hills Regional High School for three years before spending eight years in the Westwood School District.
In Westwood, Cascone was an interim elementary school principal, the ESL and World Language Department supervisor, and director of personnel and special projects. He was the principal of Westwood High School before going to Old Bridge, where he was executive director of academics for the district.
A new superintendent usually means changes are coming to the district, but Cascone said he’s being cautious about doing making changes too quickly. He wants to learn what West Orange needs and what he can do, but his biggest goal is to create welcoming and safe schools for students and teachers.
But not all aspects of the district are in need of work. Cascone said the district already boasts many strong programs, both during the school year and summer months.
“There’s some really outstanding programming, especially at the secondary and high school level,” he said. “We have some pretty cutting edge technology here. Just having seen the summer programs, we offer a great variety, both mandated and with the enrichment program.”
As any district, the West Orange school system has problems that need to be solved. According to Cascone, the district must improve morale among teachers, parents and students. This is an issue he has seen before, and he said stability will solve it in the long term.
“What ends up happening is, schools bunker down and operate to do what they need,” he said. “It leads to inconsistencies. In addition to a good dose of optimism, we need to identify where our systems have broken down and fix them. That’s a great way to build morale and get it working again.”
Communication is one of the key issues community members raise and ask BOE members and school administrators to improve, and Cascone has some ideas. He believes it comes from the culture, and building trust among the district leaders.
“It has to be a culture that responds,” he said. “Ultimately, what’s going to get that? It’s working among the leaders and starting with teachers. That continues with everyone, including myself. Then everyone is just doing it.”
The BOE had two new “members” this year with the introduction of student representatives to the dais for the first time to share their own ideas on how to serve students. Cascone wants to work with next year’s representatives to improve the district and he finds value in the opinions of students of all ages.
“In my experience, having them at board meetings is this perfunctory thing where they are just there,” he said about the student representatives. “What else can we gain from that? I want to utilize them as sounding boards. I’m a big fan of shadowing students, at all levels. What does it feel like to walk in their shoes? That’s a great way to take advantage of that.”
Working daily with students was the reason Cascone became a teacher in the first place. He majored in international affairs in college, and when wasn’t able to find a job in his field after graduation, he decided to go to Costa Rica to teach English, hoping it would bolster his resume when he returned home. He got a job teaching Spanish and ESL at a private school when he returned.
“It was a job because I needed to be employed,” Cascone said. “Then once I got into it, I fell in love with it. It matched my abilities and skill set well. Then I started furthering my education and moving into public school.”
Cascone has been a teacher, department supervisor, high school principal and central office administrator. He said he had wanted to move up the ranks at his previous school to effect as much change as possible to benefit the students. He’s been a champion for public schools ever since he began teaching in them, he said, and he wants to continue that work in West Orange.
“Education is the great equalizer, and it is under assault,” Cascone said. “We’re being financially squeezed, but when you see regulations for charter schools and non-public schools, you can’t help but think something is at play there. So that makes me a champion of public schools. There’s always going to be people relying on them. I’m glad I can steer West Orange.”