WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange School District’s pre-school program will open its doors to young children and parents on Wednesday, Sept. 6, when the new school year begins at a new location: The Life Christian Church on Northfield Avenue. Moving from Kelly and Redwood elementary schools, 70 pre-school students will now be attending class at the Betty Maddalena Early Learning Center. Connie Salimbeno, previously the district’s director of special services, will serve as the school’s inaugural principal.
“One of the reasons I’m excited about the early learning center is that the pre-school will be in a central location,” Salimbeno told the West Orange Chronicle in a phone interview on Aug. 25. “There will be communication with the teachers and with the parents in one place.”
Salimbeno is beginning her 14th year teaching in West Orange and her 23rd year in the education field.
“It was always something I wanted to do, but not really what my family had in mind,” said Salimbeno, who majored in political science in college, got her teaching and administration certificates and a master’s degree in special education.
“It’s a gift that I just love giving back,” she said.
Salimbeno said her background in special education has helped prepare her for the demands of being in charge of a pre-school.
“I was working in the elementary schools when I came to West Orange. I was a learning consultant,” she said. “Everything I’ve done in special education and administration and in the rest of my career has led to this.”
As principal, Salimbeno hopes to build a pre-school program that will provide a strong base education to its students before they move on to kindergarten.
“It’s a unique opportunity to build relationships,” she said. “I want to build a good pre-school institution and work with the child study team to make a solid kindergarten base.”
According to West Orange Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky, Salimbeno has all the qualities the district was looking for in a principal to fill the position.
“We wanted somebody who would know how to do pre-school and early learning and child development,” Rutzky told the Chronicle in a phone interview on Aug. 25. “And someone who knew how to work with teachers and parents. For many parents, this is the first time their child has been to school in a formal setting. They have to be patient and kind and be able to help parents. She has all of those qualities.”
The new early learning center is opening after a few years of searching for a new location to teach the first-time students. According to Rutzky, The Life Christian Church had the best facility needing the least amount of renovation to serve the nine classes of pre-schoolers that will be taught there.
“We were looking for a place that was big enough for our pre-school needs and had an environment that was safe for them,” he said. “The board had been looking for a few years and there were four or five locations that fell through.”
One of those locations was at St. Joseph’s Church, but Rutzky said that to get the building up to code for the school’s needs would have cost approximately $500,000, in addition to the other improvements that would have been necessary.
“The Life Christian Church has a great new facility that we didn’t have to do anything to, and the price was something that we were pleased with,” Rutzky said.
The Betty Maddalena Early Learning Center will open after a summer of hard work by teachers and administrators. Maddalena, a longtime district employee, was the director of student support services until her death in 2011.
“Betty was an educator for over 30 years, and began her career as a teacher, advancing to coordinator, then supervisor, and ultimately director, all in West Orange. She was the first to receive the prestigious Educator Medal of Honor Award in 2006 from Gov. Jon Corzine and Commissioner of Education Lucille Davy. Betty was always a true advocate for all of our children and extremely well respected by her peers,” Board of Education President Sandra Mordecai said in a recent press release.
A ceremony will be held Monday, Oct. 9, to officially name the school in Maddalena’s honor.
“I unfortunately didn’t know her personally,” Rutzky said of Maddalena. “But the Board of Education is very proud to name the school after her. So many people reached out after we announced it, and I know she was beloved here.”
Salimbeno was a colleague and a close friend of Maddalena.
“She became one of my closest friends when I came to West Orange,” Salimbeno said. “She encouraged me to get my special education and administration services certificates. For years to come this will reflect on who she was, and we really wanted to have it named after her.”
Pre-school families will have a chance to visit the school and meet the staff at an open house on Wednesday, Aug. 30, from 7 to 8:30 p.m.
“I’m really, really excited to begin,” Salimbeno said.