WEST ORANGE, NJ - A review of the opening school week, developing a strategic plan for the school district, and self-assessed HIB (Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying) grades were the focus of Monday’s Board of Education meeting in West Orange.
The meeting started off with Superintendent Jeffrey Rutzky discussing the success of the opening school week, citing that students “showed up and had a great experience with new teachers, and that there were ‘positive feelings and culture’ across all schools.”
While Rutzky felt that the first few weeks of school were a success, he acknowledged that there were some issues regarding transportation to and from the schools. Rutzky then described, in length, the details of what is going into the transportation plans behind the scenes.
“Obviously, there were some transportation issues,” he said, referring to trouble some students had in either getting to or departing from school. With that said, he thanked the new Director of Transportation Thomas D’Angelo for his work in helping to alleviate some issues and added that through the change in personnel, individuals have “really stepped up to do all they can to help.”
In addition, regarding transportation, Rutzky said that the department is at “a point now where the conversation with parents is about where the stops are located, which is a good place to be because we always want to talk about the safety of the stops and if they can be more efficient.”
According to Rutzky, the department is also “analyzing the entire transportation department and looking at “what’s the next process in helping improve departure times and arrival times.”
He said the district wants students to be able to arrive at school early enough where they can eat breakfast, go to their lockers, and also depart from school at a decent time. He added that the district is also evaluating bus trip lengths. And, he shared that in the beginning in October, a professional who is skilled with understanding the transportation program and efficient routing will review the district’s plans.
In addition, he said the department will also be looking into transportation for out-of-district placement students and will be making sure the buses are doing their routes according to schedule. Rutzky assured residents that things will be “run smoother next year.”
“It is not acceptable,” he said, referring to issues with transportation. He said he wants everything taken care in advance of the first day of school next year.
Five-Year Strategic Plan
The floor was then given to New Jersey School Board Association member Charlene Peterson to talk about the district’s strategic plan for the next five years. Because of the size of the team and the grand scope of the overall process, Peterson said she has come to “help facilitate and explain what needs to be done.”
She said there will be three meetings, with each taking place about a month apart from one another and running for under two hours, starting at 7 p.m.
“For the first meeting, the community comes together and kicks off with a State of the District to help the community understand where they are now,” she said. She added that the community members in attendance will then divide up into small groups and discuss what “they perceive to be various strengths and weaknesses of the district.” Next, the group will reconvene and discuss the findings.
She said that during the second meeting, the participants will “discuss where they want the district to be in five years.”
“Four or five goals will be narrowed down to common themes,” Peterson said, mentioning “Student Achievement” and “21st Century Skills” as examples.
The third meeting will involve the “writing of statements centered on the goals decided upon” by the group. With that, she said the administration will be able to form plans in collaboration with what the community wants.
The first meeting will be held in early Nov., and Board President Ron Charles said he wants this process to be a team effort with residents and the board.
“We see this as a partnership,” Charles said, while encouraging residents to come out to the meetings.
Rutzky said he will “lead the charge in making sure everything is set up and ready to go,” citing his experience with two other similar projects.
HIB Self-Assessment Grades
Rutzky also discussed the HIB Self-Assessment Grades, where every school has a safety group that determines how well they are doing with the HIB process. He said that each school has their individual grades up on their websites.
“The rating scale is from a zero to three,” Rutzky said. “Zero is not meeting standard, one is partially meeting it, two is meeting it, and three is exceeding it.”
The safety team reviews the scores to evaluate how the schools are doing to meet the standards.
“On a district level, conversation would then be had with anti-bullying specialists and principals coming together to discuss why a score was given and what can be done to raise it.”
At the Aug. 27 BOE meeting, the board reviewed a confidential document that highlighted the HIB incidents that occurred in recent months. According to the data, the number of incidents last year was 130, but shrank to 87 in 2015, with the number of actual HIB cases in the 2013-2014 school year being 68, compared to the 30 incidents in the 2014-2015 year. Rutzky noted that the decrease in incidents was “really getting kids to understand the seriousness of being disrespectful, treating kids poorly, and not understanding the difference between conflict and HIB.” Training for staff to recognize and educate on HIB is happening over the next few weeks, he said.
While it was agreed then that the lowered numbers were a positive sign, Board member Mark Robertson said he wondered about the aspect of social media bullying.
“What kind of efforts are we utilizing there to educate kids?” he asked.
Rutzky replied that they are doing a “lot of informational sessions with kids and parents. Some parents don’t realize their kids are using social media. They can get themselves into some problems if it’s not used correctly.”
At the Sept. 21 meeting, Board member Sandra Mordecai showed concern with how many schools graded themselves a score of one in different categories, pointing out that the board has approved a lot of personal development in support of HIB at every board meeting.
Rutzky replied that HIB-specific training is offered by the state, but added that the district is also “bringing individuals to train the team that maybe don’t have the opportunity (to attend training) when the state offers it.”
Rutzky added that evaluations will help the district figure out where adjustments can be made to specific schools and district wide.
“By me evaluating this, I can see this information and go about what needs to be done,” he said.
Some residents showed concern about consistency in the amount of times different school safety groups met up to discuss HIB.
Rutzky said that there is a mandatory amount of times the groups must meet according to law.
Save the Date
In other news, Board member Laura Lab announced that the Harvest Moon Fundraiser has been rescheduled from October 3 to November 20.
The next BOE meeting is scheduled for October 19, at 8 p.m. Residents are encouraged to attend.