Social studies supervisor discusses department’s future with BOE

WEST ORANGE, NJ — West Orange School District social studies supervisor Mike Figueiredo presented the West Orange Board of Education at its Nov. 18 meeting with an update on the social studies curriculum for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, and shared his vision for the future of the department. Figueiredo said the district’s seven-year subscription plan to Pearson curriculum tools is expiring at the end of the 2019-2020 school year, and a committee has been formed to review new materials to implement next year.

“To make sure we do due diligence, not only for the state but for ourselves, we have formed an evaluation committee of our resources where we’re going to look at the K-5 instructional resources and prepare recommendations for the 2020-2021 school year,” he said.

The committee is made up of two to three teachers from each of the seven elementary schools in West Orange; Figueiredo; St. Cloud Elementary School Principal Eric Price, a former district social studies supervisor; and Gregory Elementary School Assistant Principal Stephen Olshalsky, another former district social studies supervisor. Two curriculum programs were reviewed Nov. 21, and two will be reviewed Dec. 12. Two finalists will be chosen and piloted in several classrooms after the holiday break; by spring, a recommendation for which program to use next year will be made to Superintendent Scott Cascone.

Also in his presentation, Figueiredo discussed the areas he would like to see improve in the district.

“One is the integration of English language arts in social studies that develop reading and writing skills in the 21st century. Second, infuse more technology lessons into social studies on the elementary level,” he said. “Finally — and this is going to be a big goal of mine that I’m working very hard on — better articulation of social studies teachers in grades K through five in regard to content, writing and social studies. We have seven schools and teachers are spread out. I want to work on kindergarten teachers working together, first-grade teachers working together and so forth. There should be better communication between the grades and between the schools.”

Sixth-graders cover the Revolutionary War through the Reconstruction period in social studies class, seventh-grade social studies places a heavy emphasis on civics and eighth-graders learn about the time period between ancient civilizations and the Renaissance.

“At the middle school, our rubrics are aligned with ELA to help improve writing skills, and we have an emphasis on critical thinking as well as analysis,” Figueiredo said. “We need greater communication between the middle schools with modern technology, allowing the teachers at Edison Middle School to be in consistent and constant contact, and particularly with the teachers that teach seventh grade at Roosevelt and Liberty. It really helps us go in the same direction when we’re talking about the 46 teachers that teach social studies in grades six through 12.”

He also talked about the curriculum at the high school level in the presentation. The state requires that high school students take one year of world history and two years of United States history to graduate, covering from 1450 to the present. Though Figueiredo said high school classes are consistent with ESL classes and are good at assigning project-based assessments, he wants more collaboration time between the teachers.

“Unless it’s through departmental time on a Monday after school, there’s very little collaboration time for the social studies teachers,” Figueiredo said.

The state standards for social studies curriculum will be changing in 2020, but he said that supervisors and teachers across the state don’t yet know what the changes will entail. Despite this, Figueiredo shared his vision for the future of the WOSD social studies department.

“First I want to revise the curricula based on the new standards,” he said. “I want to budget for Amistad in-district professional training, in particular on the elementary level. I want to bring these professionals here to West Orange, instead of us going to Kean. That way more teachers can be touched by the training. I think that training is incredibly important.”

In addition, Figueiredo said he is looking to begin a class about the Holocaust and genocide, a class focusing on African-American history, a class focusing on Latin and Spanish-American history, and an AP macroeconomics class at the high school level.

BOE member Terry Trigg-Scales asked that West Orange history be included more in the third- and fourth-grade curriculum, and Figueiredo said field trips to Town Hall, the West Orange Police Department and Edison National Historical Park are currently in the works. BOE member Cheryl Merklinger, who grew up in town and attended school in the district, concurred with Trigg-Scales.

“I’m glad to see the focus going back to West Orange history,” she said at the meeting. “I grew up with that, so I’m glad to see it’s being looked at again. I got to do the Edison trip and the trip to Town Hall and even got to sit in the jail cell and stuff like that. I think those are fun things that are definitely more important to focus on with our students, especially in the younger grades, versus putting some heavier things on them.”

Trigg-Scales also asked Figueiredo to compare West Orange’s progress in social studies to other similar districts.

“I would also like to see us compare ourselves to similar districts,” she said at the meeting. “Looking at the state and global is very good, but if we find some benchmark districts like ourselves and see how we compare there, I think that would give us another option. But what we’ve done is phenomenal and kudos to the staff and the students.”

BOE member Mark Robertson said he understands it is impossible to cover thousands of years of history in one class, but would like to see more focus on specialized topics.

“It’s impossible to cover all of it well, but to drill down a little bit more during key periods and talk about what those takeaways are, what the big ideas are, and how they affect us today — that’s something I’d like to see a little bit more of,” Robertson said at the meeting. “I know it’s got tidbits of it while teachers are reviewing some key things, but I’m concerned that there is so much of an emphasis on critical thinking exercises and understanding that you can’t cover all the content. It would be great if there was a more relevant capturing of the concepts within the critical thinking exercises.”