Middle School Honors Program Discussed at Length at the West Orange Board of Education Meeting

West Orange Board of Education members (l-r) Irving Schwarzbaum, Mark Robertson, Laura Lab, Ronald Charles, Sandra Mordecai Credits: Tim Carter
St. Cloud Elementary School Principal, Eric Price, and students from the St. Cloud Kindergarten Art Class Credits: Tim Carter

WEST ORANGE, NJ -- Dozens of parents attended the West Orange Board of Education meeting on May 10, with many speaking during the public comments about the middle school honors program, among other topics.  A number of faculty members also attended, seated in the rear of the library media center of West Orange High School.

The Board and Superintendent Jeff Rutzky also addressed many concerns, some of which were brought up at the last WOBOE meeting on April 28.

The parents took the Board to task for multiple issues:

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  • Some parents told a number of stories which related to the tests, including their children’s experiences of taking the honors test and encountering material they felt had not been covered during the school year. 
  • Others reported confusion as to why their children were not accepted into the program, despite receiving all A’s during the year. 
  • One parent questioned the transparency of the process for implementation and if parent feedback in planning meetings was dismissed if it didn’t align with the superintendent’s plans. 
  • Parents also questioned how many students were accepted into the program.

Roosevelt Middle School Principal Lionel Hush answered one question, saying, “As an honors committee member, I want to respectfully disagree with a comment that was made earlier in regards to suggestions being brought to the committee and being dismissed.”  He went on to say that during the process, a number of the changes made to the program were suggested by the committee, many of whom were current honors teachers.

Edison Middle School Principal Xavier Fitzgerald referenced a more “clandestine” process four or five years ago when the honors program was being planned at that time.  In contrast, he stated that this year “I believe that the committee did its due diligence in taking into consideration everyone’s opinion.”  Fitzgerald referenced the process as being “as transparent and as clear as I’ve ever seen it in my eleven years here at Edison Middle School and in West Orange.”

Emad AbuHakmeh, Math Supervisor Grades 6-12, responded to concerns related to honors math.  “I understand the feeling in the room.  But let’s not forget:   this is not a test to determine whether our students are moving from 6th grade math to 7th grade math.  This is a test that is designed to identify the students that can perform at the next level and beyond the grade level.”

He went on to relate that national averages for placement in honors programs generally fall around the 10% range.  West Orange fell in the 12-15% range for middle school grades this year.

Superintendent Rutzky spoke at length to respond to the many concerns raised during public commentary, and to comments made at the last meeting.

“Regarding the transparency of the process for the middle school honors program,” he stated “I can tell you that all but two individuals who spoke tonight, of those twenty-six, felt it was very open.”

“Let’s not confuse being part of the superintendent’s vision of whether or not it was discussed – everything was able to be discussed.”  Rutzky added, “When there’s not a consensus, we go away and we look at all the data, we look at all the facts that go behind it, and then a decision has to be made, and unfortunately, whether that’s popular or popular, that’s part of the role.”

Rutzky empathized with the parents, saying, “I know it’s very hard as a parent, when your child doesn’t get into something, and they’re so very disappointed about that, but that’s life, unfortunately.”  

He added that teachers do sometimes recommend that students be placed in honors after the next school year has started.  He further stated, “It is important that because your child didn’t get in, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with your child.  It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with what you did.  It just means they may not be ready.”

On the subject of the upcoming departmentalization in upper elementary grades, Rutzky stated, “There’s been plenty of input from the teachers on departmentalization.”  He referenced comments by Denise DeMartinis, K-5 Supervisor of English Language Arts.  Rutzky noted that DeMartinis was initially apprehensive but ultimately appreciative of the program when she and Rutzky served in the Roseland district. 

He went on to say, “What’s really important is we did not do it for this September, meaning the year we’re in, because of the feedback from the teachers, that they thought we could use more time to really prepare for it.”

Rutzy described a meeting he had last week with WOHS Dean of Students and WOEA President Mark Maniscalco.  He stated that they “both agreed I certainly want to listen to the teachers and understand what’s going on.”  Mr. Rutzky explained that Mr. Maniscalco has requested feedback from all the teachers to find out what is overwhelming and consuming their time, to be able to best address the concerns.

On the topic of extra time spent uploading lesson plans, Rutzky explained that this is a Department of Education requirement.  He noted that when he started working in West Orange, our elementary schools didn’t have a format for these lesson plans.  He added that two of elementary schools didn’t even require them.

Regarding concerns around his responsiveness to teachers, Rutzky described the process when he started as superintendent.  He spoke of meeting with teachers in all the schools, saying,  “I sat and took pages and pages of notes.” He says he learned that lack of staff training was one of the biggest issues consistently brought to his attention.

Rutzky noted that the public had asked about viewing the tapings of school board meetings via the website.  These are now available on the district YouTube channel (Click here).

Rutzky took a moment to discuss personnel questions raised via email and at the last BOE meeting. Referring an email sent from a few parents and a teacher at the Redwood Elementary School, Rutzky stated that it contained inaccurate information regarding their former principal’s allegedly “forced” retirement, which, he said, she has since refuted. 

Likewise, he addressed information stated at the last meeting about a Gregory School teacher.  The accusation was while her husband was dying, the district did not offer help and support.  “The idea that we didn’t provide emergency days -- 100% inaccurate,” he remarked.  He went on to list several sets of donated days granted to a number of staff members dealing with serious illnesses and other emergencies.

Rutzky defended his management style, referring to a claim that he had pointed a finger at someone or yelled at a staff member, denying each.  He offered, “Am I blunt?  Yes.  Am I straightforward?  Yes....because it takes out the fluff.  I am very clear on my expectations for everybody that I work with.”

Rutzky finished by saying, “I would like to thank all the teachers here tonight and at the last meeting.  I heard you loud and clear and I am very reflective.  I will tell you that I listened to everything you said.  We will continue to work towards doing what we need to do… it’s not us versus them.”

In other aspects of the meeting earlier in the evening, a special Earth Day presentation was given by the Kindergarten art students of the St. Cloud Elementary School.   Each student read a short passage describing the project they made, creating colorful caterpillars, and tracking the process of live caterpillars becoming butterflies, within their classroom.

District K-5 Math Supervisor, Darlene Berg also gave a presentation to update the public on the math program.  Highlights included the re-aligning from the “common core standards” to the newly established but similar “New Jersey Student Learning Standards.” 

The online home school connection was also previewed, featuring digital resources and a portal where parents can see classroom lessons.  Berg noted that the West Orange School District was recently cited for its achievement in math within the book, “Excellence through Equity,” by Alan M. Blankstein and Pedro Noguera, with foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Responding to a question about advertisements seen on West Orange School buses recently, Business Administrator John Calavano responded that he’s inquiring with the bus service.  He added that, to date, the district has received income from these ads.

At the end of the meeting, Board of Education President Laura Lab thanked the public for their attendance and comments.  In response to certain emails and comments referenced earlier in the evening, Lab added, “Relying upon hearsay when you have no direct knowledge, and then touting that as gospel, is really an incredibly stupid idea.  It just is bad all around.  It leads to slander, it leads to libel.  And when you talk about people’s careers, if you don’t know what you’re talking about, sometimes it’s best not to say anything at all.”

The next West Orange Board of Education Meeting will be held on Monday, May 23rd, with public session beginning at 8 pm.  All residents are encouraged to attend.

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