July 3, 2014 at 12:04 AM
WEST ORANGE, NJ - (Editor's Note: This is Part I of a two-part interview with Interim Superintendent James O'Neill).
Departing West Orange Superintendent James O'Neill is heading to Livingston after two years of district changes and improvements. TAPinto West Orange sat down with O'Neill to recap his impact and implemented changes to the West Orange School district since June of 2012.
O'Neill's first week in the West Orange School District began with a bang when the 2011 Essex County Teacher of the Year, West Orange High School English teacher Erica DePalo, was arrested for Endangering the Welfare of a Child on Aug. 31, 2012. In a deal with the Essex County Prosecutor's Office, DePalo lost her teaching license and had to register as a sex offender.
On Feb. 7, 2013, Washington Elementary School teacher Christopher Yonitch was arrested and charged with Sexual Assault and Endangering the Welfare of a Minor. After the case was dismissed as a "no-bill" by a Grand Jury, a district investigation determined Yonitch was innocent of all charges. In an almost unheard-of ending, Yonitch will return as a fifth-grade teacher in the West Orange School district in September.
With 40 years of experience in education, O'Neill has a wealth of knowledge and was not afraid to make changes. Those changes were felt in particular at West Orange High School, where every coaching position in every sport was reposted, requiring coaches to reapply for their jobs. Controversy erupted, in particular, when long-time football coach John Jacob was not rehired. Current coach, Jim Matsakis, took over the program and led the team to a successful 7-3 season. In addition to football, softball, girls basketball, boys basketball, hockey, lacrosse, and bowling saw changes too.
"Coaches have a tremendous impact on the climate and culture of a high school," said O'Neill.
"Head coaches must buy into the goals of the administration and principal; challenge athetes to pursue academics first and athletics, second; and be a responsible representative of the school, demonstrating character, sportsmanship, and teamwork."
O'Neill, who has been passionate about school athletics throughout his career, went on to say that nine high-performing students/athletes are returning to West Orange High School from private schools as the demand for academic rigor and athletic excellence continues to develop. He was a familiar face at many games and meets and even traveled to the Boys Soccer State Championship Game.
As for the development of the academics of the school district, the implementation of Rotating Block scheduling and revision of curriculum to adhere to common core standards posed logistical challenges district-wide. The elementary schools and Edison Middle School Central Sixth already had modified block scheduling; under O'Neill's leadership West Orange High School just completed their first year with a Rotating Block schedule and a common lunch, allowing for more free time for studying, socializing, clubs, and more. The Livingston School District also employs a Central Sixth and Rotating Block/Common Lunch at Livingston High School.
O'Neill was convinced of the importance of the switch. "We institutued the Rotating Block Schedule in Chatham and Roxbury," he said, "and it was a thousand times better for the students and teachers."
"There is less wasted time; more instruction time; and a reduction in discipline issues. There were only six fights in the high school during the 2013-2014 school year because less idle time was spent in the hallways."
A special district-driven SAT Prep program including the administration of the PSAT to all ninth and tenth graders, along with the provision of an affordable SAT Prep class, resulted in a boost of student SAT scores by an average of 140 points.
Implementing the Rotating Block Schedule at Roosevelt and Liberty Middle Schools created concerns and dissension, particularly with an external Special Needs group that filed complaints against the school district with the Office of Civil Rights regarding district 504 plans and the New Jersey State Education Department regarding schedule changes at LMS and RMS. Both of those complaints were dismissed without merit, and RMS and LMS also completed their first year of block scheduling.
O'Neill has repeatedly noted that, "The past two years have been some of the most rewarding of my career. The students and teaching staff are extraordinary."
There were several highlights that O'Neill mentioned including the Boys Soccer State Championship and the "Senior Prom," where senior citizens were invited to the high school to interact with the students. "West Orange is the only school district where the school population and demographics are not the same. The interaction between the students and senior citizens is an amazing thing to see and goes a long way towards building community relationships."
O'Neill was feted on June 24 by the school and township community at the Rock Spring Country Club. He will remain as a consultant to assist new Superintendent Jeffrey Rutzky through July 31 and assumed his duties as Interim Superintendent in Livingston on July 1.
A discussion of the switch to PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) testing and the new teacher evaluation process will appear in Part II of our interview with Mr. O'Neill.