WEST ORANGE, NJ — In response to the mounting chorus of parents and teachers who want to employ diversity training in the West Orange Public Schools district, Acting Superintendent Eveny de Mendez went over her preliminary plan during last week’s West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) meeting.
“We are continuing to work through building a process and/or committee to address the areas and the issues that we need to,” said de Mendez. “So, our structure will be a diversity committee that is composed of four subcommittees.”
According to de Mendez, the first subcommittee will “address hiring practices and building a pipeline so that [the district] can take a look at [its] staffing,” and the second subcommittee “is going to look at curriculum and instruction.” She elaborated that the second committee will ensure that the district’s curriculum “really addresses all of the historical and literary…contributions that have been made throughout our society.”
Instructional resources will also need to be “inclusive of our students so that when they are learning in their classrooms, when they are reading, they can see themselves reflected,” de Mendez added.
The third subcommittee “will deal with [diversity] training.” This, according to de Mendez, will not entail a simple one-or two-day training, but needs to be “an ongoing effort to talk about cultural competency [and] proficiency.” She added that the hope is for staff to not only “understand differences,” but to also be able to “move beyond tolerance, acceptance and [to] really understand community…how to rebuild community, [and to] respect [and] value each other for who we are.”
The fourth subcommittee will be designed specifically to address the district’s affirmative action plans, comprehensive equity plans and “developing objectives and goals,” which de Mendez said will be presented to the board at a later date.
De Mendez also said that the district plans to dedicate all of next year’s professional development on focusing in two areas: assessment and “all these issues of diversity.” In order to accommodate training, de Mendez said that $50,000 has been built into the budget “to provide training throughout the year.”
“We have begun to assemble surveys,” she said. “We’ve reached out to FDU (Fairleigh Dickinson University), to the associations that do the Undoing Racism training, the cultural competency training, so we’re assembling all that and we will come to the board [with a plan].
“Again, I know this takes time, but we need to build up a plan that’s comprehensive before we come to the board. I don’t want to piecemeal it. This is very important work, [and] work that’ll be sustained.”
L’Mani S. Viney, who has taught at Piscataway High School for 23 years, offered to provide services from the American Psychological Association (APA), of which he is a member on the Working Committee. He also suggested for the board to look at several scholars in order to provide training—including Dr. Sean Joe, Dr. Oscar Babin and Dr. Howard Stevenson, who are all experts in African-American psychology, mental health and racial trauma.
On the subject of teacher recruitment, Viney implored that “teachers must reflect the diversity that exist within the school.”
“I am one of only 2 percent of African-American males that are within the teaching sector,” said Viney. “I am at Piscataway High School; I am one African-American male out of 11 of 167 teachers. Trust me when I say I have an understanding, over 21 years…of the impact that not just diversity, but the ability to relate [has on] the student body.”
He continued that he believes that the West Orange district can be more aggressive in recruiting students not only from nearby colleges and universities, but also from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
Joe Macaluso, a veteran and former educator with 35 years of experience teaching high school English at Montclair High School, came to comment after being unprepared to do so at the last board meeting.
“I came to the last board meeting because I had read in New Jersey Spotlight, [the] Feb. 15 article, about diversity and I was pleased to see that topic come up at the board meeting,” said Macaluso, who added that by 2024, New Jersey school boards are going to require teachers to reflect the diversity of the student population.
This means that the district will need to increase the number of teachers of color working within the schools, he said.
“In New Jersey schools, 16 percent of teachers […] are teachers of color, however 18 percent of our teachers nationwide are teachers of color,” said Macaluso. “And you don’t have to look too far to see that some school districts can succeed in hiring teachers of color. [In] East Orange, 75 percent of their teachers are teachers of color, [and in] Irvington Schools, 66 percent of their teachers are teachers of color—so we know it can be done, and I certainly hope you’ll be working strongly to achieve that goal.”
Macaluso also urged the board the maintain its diversity practices, stating that the the main problem he saw while participating in a seven-year national program spanning seven states with seven universities and teacher unions was that “the ideas [they] were working on were not being institutionalized, [so] they got lost.”
In response to Macaluso’s inquiry about the district’s affirmative action officers, de Mendez clarified that there are two currently in place: Elizabeth Veneziano, who is also the acting assistant superintendent of curriculum and looks at where “affirmative action [is] in curriculum,” and Cheryl Butler, who deals “with anything that has to do with staff.”
With regard to “Restorative Practices,” which was referenced earlier by West Orange resident Jeremias Salinas, de Mendez explained that WOHS French teacher Dana Peart “conducted a professional development for both teachers and for students.” Together, she said, the teachers and students looked at the curriculum and sample lessons in order to work on a plan that will be implemented next year.
De Mendez also mentioned that she “met with another staff member who is going to collaborate with that effort to put together an action plan for professional development.”
WOBOE member Terry Trigg-Scales praised all of the community members who provided suggestions and resources to help the district in this process. She also acknowledged that the lack of diversity is not only an issue within the district, but throughout the state.
Fellow board member Mark Robertson—who has worked for more than 30 years on the multicultural marketing and communications for major companies like Ford, Pepsi and Quest Diagnostics—also praised community members for vocalizing their thoughts on diversity within the district.
“Never before, until this past year, have I heard so many parents—white, black, every color—come forth to the mic over the course of the past year and talk about diversity,” said Robertson, who added that he appreciates that the parents not only want to talk about it, but want to do what they can to help “institutionalize it” and “make it a reality beyond simply having a diverse population.”
Robertson also gave “major kudos” to de Mendez for presenting “the most comprehensive vision thus far for what components need to be in place to make this machine actually move ahead.”
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