Public support saves librarian, chorus teacher positions in West Orange School District

WEST ORANGE, NJ — Members of the West Orange School District community spoke out at the April 19 Board of Education meeting against the elimination of Hazel Elementary School librarian Joyce Soto and Liberty Middle School chorus teacher Craig Sanphy in next year’s budget, advocating for the district to keep the positions on the payroll. After the meeting, the district announced that Soto’s and Sanphy’s jobs would remain.

“This administration and Board of Education take the will of the people seriously and strive to act as much as possible in alignment with that will,” Superintendent Scott Cascone said in an email to the West Orange Chronicle on May 3. “Through the public advocacy provided at the board meeting we gained a clear insight into what that will was insofar as these positions. The administration went back to the drawing board and was able to restore the positions in the 2021-22 school year budget.”

Many staff members from the district, as well as educators from outside West Orange, supported Soto and Sanphy at the meeting. New Jersey Association of School Librarians President Beth Thomas commented on the negative effects Hazel would experience without a school librarian.

“The commitment of your school library media specialists is abundantly evident, as demonstrated,” Thomas said. “During this unprecedented year in education, West Orange school library media specialists seamlessly pivoted from physical spaces to digital spaces to continue information literacy, instruction, curricular support and access to digital resources.”

She said the school librarians increased students’ access to materials by subscribing to e-book and audiobook collections, pointing out that school libraries can better address the student and school needs than classroom libraries can.

“Robust budgets enable school library media specialists to purchase resources that are current, diverse, support the curricular needs of the entire building and address a range of learning abilities,” Thomas said. “The return on investment of a school library cannot be overstated. Your school library media specialists serve all students and all staff in the district. They are among the few educators who teach every student every year that student is in the building. They foster relationships that make personalized learning truly possible. They are one of your district’s best bargains.”

Patricia Richardson, an eighth-grade English teacher at LMS, called the elimination of school librarians “catastrophic” when she spoke at the meeting.

“As an ELA teacher, I do not know where I would be without the help, support and collaboration of our library media specialist,” Richardson said. “They are the heart of each building, nurturing lifelong learning while also creating a special place in the hearts of our children and staff.”

According to Richardson, the school librarians went into overdrive when the COVID-19 pandemic forced school buildings to close in March 2020 and added resources to help students and staff with online learning. They were often in virtual classrooms with teachers as well.

“The library media specialists have been the curators for teachers and staff to help us navigate all that is going on in the world today, either for our own social and emotional well-being or providing talking points for our students,” she said. “Why would we want to eliminate that?”

Eliminating Sanphy’s position would have forced LMS and Roosevelt Middle School to share a chorus teacher, which resident Sarah Kravits said would harm both music programs.

“Having one person serve both Liberty and Roosevelt shortchanges both populations and hampers the ability of the teacher to be effective,” she said in her comments at the meeting. “This reduces the value of the experience for the students and reduces the experience completely.”

Some students have dropped out of choir this year because of the difficulty participating virtually presents; Kravits pointed out that lower enrollment in the program does not represent the number of students who want to participate and will once in-person learning begins again.

“To make a decision based on the short-term pandemic-affected low enrollment in choral classes would inflict future disadvantage on students and on music programming at the middle school and moving up to the high school. Students returning from the challenges of this year will need opportunities for a variety of artistic expression more than ever, and the district has the responsibility to provide that.”

Ana Natale-Pereira said that all four of her children in the district have participated in the music program at some point since elementary school, and have been in the chorus at LMS.

“The program has given kids the opportunity to learn music at a high level that is priceless,” she said at the meeting. “That talent feeds into the high school and the high school program that we all enjoy. It would be unfortunate to have to see their teacher cut and see one teacher be divided between two middle schools. We need to keep the Liberty program as is. It’s critically important.”