West Orange School District lays out plans, progress in diversity recruitment

WEST ORANGE, NJ — While the West Orange School District’s teacher ethnic makeup does not match the student ethnic makeup, progress on that front is being made. At the Nov. 21 West Orange Board of Education meeting, Joseph Vespignani, the district’s executive director of personnel and special projects, gave a presentation titled “Diversity Data and Recruitment Plan Update,” in which he detailed current data and trends, as well as district efforts to increase diversity in its hiring practices.

“This is just a snapshot of the action plan that was implemented in July of 2020. The goal was to increase partnerships with various organizations, colleges, universities to ensure district representation at various career fairs and expand our reach,” Vespignani said, adding that the WOSD program Tomorrow’s Teachers “has been identified as one of the premier programs throughout the state and comes recommended actually from the NJDOE. So we’re looking for measures to expand that program and our reach and recruitment effort.”

Tomorrow’s Teachers is a program for West Orange High School students who are considering one day joining the education profession. The program mentors these students, provides information and allows students to explore the education field.

“Most recently I had, this past Friday, (Nov. 18), the pleasure of joining Ms. (Sharon) Ortiz’s classroom for our Tomorrow’s Teachers,” Vespignani said. “And I have to say, if these 10 individuals move into a career of education, I think the future is very bright. It was a very thoughtful group, great questions, very engaged and I sincerely hope that they’ll pursue a career in education.”

In order to attract current teachers to the district, the district has forged several partnerships with different organizations and colleges, such as the Central Jersey Program for Recruitment of Diverse Educators, Morehouse College, William Paterson University, Kean University and Montclair State University.

The district has also implemented its own virtual diversity career fair, which will be held twice a year, and a student-teacher placement process.

“Very few districts throughout the state hold their own career fair and I know of only one other who conducts it more than once per year, so in collaboration with our new director of diversity, equity, access and inclusion, Dr. (Tamika A.) Pollins, we launched the diversity career fair this year,” Vespignani said, adding that the first fair was held Oct. 17 and the next one is planned for March. “The idea of the Oct. 17 fair was to capture any certificated individuals coming from schools of education who would graduate in December and then to do it again in March ahead of the standard career fair circuit.

“We’ve also augmented the student-teacher placement process. I now interview every student-teacher that requests a placement, including any practicums, internships or the full year of student teaching. It’s been a great way to connect with those looking for professional growth within the district,” he continued. “I’m able to monitor their certifications, where they’re at within their respective programs, and, from a recruitment effort, it works quite well. I can report that last year, from those who participated in student teaching with us, the board went on to employ two individuals as full-time teachers, one as a para and one as a lead replacement.” 

Vespignani and other district personnel have also attended several seminars to develop recruitment strategies, such as the annual New Jersey Convening on Diversifying the Teacher Workforce, Kean University’s Diversity Council on Global Education and Citizenship, and the New Jersey School Boards Association’s seminar “Addressing the Teacher Shortage: New Jersey’s Grow Your Own.”

“It’s important to note here that the teachers shortage is very real and NJ.com recently released some information that in 2010 New Jersey’s colleges and universities who have a school of education graduated 5,000 candidates to be employed in the workforce and most recently in 2020 that number dropped by 1,500 and is now at 3,500,” Vespignani said, adding that in addition to recruitment, the district needs to also focus on induction, development and retention. “We can plan and recruit, but if we’re not implementing processes to support our new staff members and ultimately retain them, then it’s all for naught.”

In order to support new teachers, Vespignani said, the district runs a yearlong mentorship program and focuses on diversity, equity, access and inclusion training. The district also relies on training from the New Jersey Bar Association on DEAI and subsidized membership for staff for wellness programs with the Metropolitan YMCA of the Oranges, among other partnerships.

In order to monitor morale, the district has implemented 30-60-90 day check-ins, surveys in which new teachers can rate their satisfaction with the district and the support they have been receiving. According to results from the 30-day pulse survey shared at the meeting, new teachers are generally happy in the WOSD.

In order to implement plans to diversify the hiring process efficiently, the district needs up-to-date data on diversity in the district.

According to Vespignani, in the past year, the new hires in the Latino/Hispanic demographic have increased by 5.4 percent, while new hires in the black demographic have increased by 1.5 percent. The district is still seeing a majority of white teachers and white new hires, despite white students making up less than 25 percent of the student demography. As these numbers begin to change, Vespignani stressed the importance of focusing on the district’s next steps.

“We will continue to foster and seek partnerships with various organizations. I think it reflects well on the district that we have our director of DEAI — that is reflective of our commitment to that as one of our district goals. We are going to increase recruiting efforts and always have our eyes and ears open for outside-the-box thinking when you can attend maybe some nontraditional recruiting events and participation at seminars,” he said. “And we’ll continue to monitor the number of diverse candidates.”

Board members did not ask any questions about the presentation, though Vice President Gary Rothstein did applaud the district’s work in this area.

“I’m just so pleased with the work that you and Dr. Pollins are doing, and it means a lot to this district,” Rothstein told Vespignani. “As you mentioned, it’s a challenging time to recruit in general, and we appreciate all the work that you’re doing to help attract new talent and diverse staff.”