WEST ORANGE, NJ — After an initial presentation of the “Preparing Multilingual Learners for Global Competence” program stirred controversy at the May 21 West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) meeting, board members requested that assistant superintendent Eveny de Mendez get further input from teachers and parents. Mendez and world languages supervisor Felix Plata returned to the board on Monday with an update as well as feedback regarding the plan to consolidate services in three schools.

During the initial presentation, it was expressed that strengthening the English Language Learners program (ELL) in the district has become a major priority since more than 1500 West Orange Public School students live in homes where languages other than English are spoken. The vote on the proposed five-year plan, which would consolidate services for ELL students in the elementary schools, was postponed until the board could hear more feedback from parents and community members.

Mendez said that even after hearing some of the concerns of community members, she still felt that board should consolidate the services at Washington, Gregory and Kelly Elementary Schools in order to ensure that students graduate with an ability to succeed in academic English as well as their native languages. She added that strengthening students’ skills in their native language is critical to transferring language skills when they learn English.

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Mendez and Plata met with teachers at both Washington and Gregory Elementary Schools, as well as with parents at a meeting of the West Orange Hispanic Foundation. According to Mendez, the main concern among teachers was professional development in order to ensure that they have the skills to make the program successful.

In addition, 42 percent of the teachers surveyed said they would volunteer to be the ELL teacher in the new program, Mendez said.

“Removing students from neighborhood schools, and separating them from friends was a concern that was shared with us,” said Mendez. “We share those concerns, but still feel the tradeoff is worth it because the ELL students and their parents will form their own supportive community.”

She also said the parents at the West Orange Hispanic Foundation meeting supported the new program “overwhelmingly.” Parents also liked the fact that ELL students would spend a minimum of 90 minutes together each day to improve their language skills. According to Mendez, the current program, which is scattered across all of the elementary schools, often only gives students 30-to-45 minutes of ELL instruction per day.

Additionally, Mendez said that because the ELL graduation rate is currently only 73.1 percent, and only 23 percent of ELL students are graduating with grade-level proficiency in English, parents expressed their willingness to give the new program a try.

“We need to ELL students both in English and their content classes,” said Mendez. “They fall behind in science and math because they have to improve their English language skills.”

According to Mendez, another concern expressed at the Gregory Elementary School meeting was that the fifth-grade class would need to return to the trailers for class if this program is brought to the school.

WOBOE member Sandra Mordecai expressed her concern about moving students back into the Gregory trailers, stating that a commitment was made to do everything possible to move students out of them.

Mendez and Platt agreed to continue their discussions with the community and report back to the WOBOE at its next meeting on June 18. 

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