Assistant superintendent navigates new district

Melody Alegria

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people to work from home for the last two months, and Melody Alegria is no exception. But she is in a somewhat unique situation — she just started a new job two weeks ago. The South Orange–Maplewood School District’s new assistant superintendent for special services, Alegria has hit the ground running in the district, all from her own house.

“It’s definitely been interesting,” she said in a phone interview on May 8. “I’m super grateful for technology. I’ve been having video meetings and am able to put faces to names and visualize who I’ve been talking to over email. I’m glad we’ve been able to connect.”

Alegria spent nearly three years as the director of special services in Willingboro, where she worked with Superintendent of Schools Ronald Taylor when he was the head of the Burlington County town’s schools system. She moved up north to South Orange–Maplewood almost two months into the lockdown that has kept school buildings closed and online learning the only form of learning for district students.

“Normally I would get a feel for the buildings. The big thing I’m missing right now is getting to work directly with the kids. I can usually see how they’re doing. But we’ve still been able to connect. As soon as my email was turned on, I don’t know if an alert went out, but I had messages,” Alegria joked. “There has been a lot of good feedback.”

Even though distance learning has been in effect for almost two months, Alegria said adjustments are constantly being made to better fit each special education student’s needs. Since she started in SOMSD on April 27, changes have been made.

“Their routine is completely thrown off,” Alegria said. “We’ve made some tweaks to meet each child where they need to be. Maybe they’ve lost a family member or been affected by the virus themselves, so education isn’t the top focus for some of them right now. This is new for everyone. Having those conversations, about ways to improve, have been happening since I’ve been here.”

Willingboro is a smaller district than South Orange–Maplewood, and Alegria was looking to work somewhere with a larger population and located further north. But she’s no stranger to the sweeping diversity found in the two towns, having worked as a special education teacher and supervisor in the School District of Philadelphia before Willingboro.

“It’s a district with over 200,000 students,” Alegria said of her employer in Pennsylvania. “There’s parts that are very urban and parts that are very suburban. I appreciate the fact that I’ve worked with so much diversity before, because if I hadn’t I don’t know that I could relate. We have a lot to celebrate here and I love that. With the diversity you’re able to learn and grow from each other.”

Only two weeks into her new position, she’s still getting acclimated to the district. Laura Morana was the interim assistant superintendent for special services during the last two years, and she’s been in the district to help Alegria and the rest of the administration with the transition. Once Morana moves on, Alegria wants to keep the department leadership stable.

“I’m still in my learning stages here,” she said. “Dr. Morana had two years of consistency but before that I know there was turnover. I want to provide some stability right now. I want to meet the needs of all of the children, and I’m looking forward to being a part of the community.”

It’s not clear when school buildings will be able to open again. But whenever they do, Alegria will already have laid the groundwork to start working in classrooms.

“I think it will be an extension of what I’m doing now,” she said. “I don’t think we’ll be able to open the doors and hug everyone, but I’ll be able to see how they’re doing in the classrooms. Then I’ll be able to see that in action. I would hope to keep feeling a part of the community, which I already do.”