WEST ORANGE, NJ — Now well into her first term as an elected member of the West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) alongside fellow newcomer Cheryl Merklinger, Terry Trigg-Scales—a Newark native and longtime West Orange resident—addressed her experience thus far and why her 38 years as a former educator and school administrator in Montclair will be an asset to the West Orange district moving forward.
“I have spent my entire career as a teacher or administrator, and in my last position I worked very closely with the board—but it is quite different being on the board,” said Trigg-Scales, who added that her new role as a citizen serving her local school board is “really a separate entity” from being a school administrator working with the board.
Trigg-Scales said that her experiences in Montclair have translated greatly to her work with the West Orange district thus far, citing many similarities between the two and describing how her observations have contributed to her goals for West Orange.
Noting that "diversity is a challenge," Trigg-Scales said that although Montclair does not have “as large of a Hispanic population as West Orange,” Montclair still “grapples with a lot of the same challenges." And although diversity is often a challenge, she added that it is also a gift because it allows the school board to explore “how [it can] meet the needs of a diverse population.”
Trigg-Scales experienced some of the issues surrounding diversity in public schools first-hand while she was working as an elementary school teacher in the Montclair district, which she said “was under a forced integration plan mandated by the office of civil rights” at the time.
During her first year of teaching, Trigg-Scales explained that Montclair had forced busing to integrate classrooms, and so she now “understands what it’s like for people to go from […] what they’re used to and [being] very comfortable [to] having uncomfortable conversations.”
“It is not enough for people just to say that ‘we’re diverse,’” said Trigg-Scales. “Being diverse is very different from embracing your diversity and I think that’s something we have a lot of work to do here in West Orange.
“We have an excellent teaching staff, but you wouldn’t want teachers to teach reading without giving them professional development. So why would you want them to teach a diverse student population without giving them some training on how to do that effectively and efficiently and with a great deal of sensitivity?...It’s the sensitivity that some people have naturally, and some people need to be coached.”
As an example of this, Trigg-Scales recalled a story of a teacher she observed while she was the principal of Montclair’s Northeast International School. She explained that school itself, an international magnet school, is very unique in that the student body consists of "English as a Second Language" (ESL) students from more than 40 countries—complete with a mini-United Nations that Trigg-Scales created to celebrate the diversity among the students.
The teacher in question, who had many years of experience and was an excellent teacher, according to Trigg-Scales, was teaching a lesson that on sequences that included “what you do when you get up in the morning.” According to Trigg-Scales, one Hispanic student told the teacher “that she brushed her teeth and then she ate,” and that the teacher told the student she was wrong, saying that “you eat first and then you brush your teeth.”
Trigg-Scales realized that despite teaching ESL students, this teacher “wasn’t sensitive to [other] cultures.”
“I’m not from another country, but that’s what I learned: you brush your teeth and then you eat, and you can brush them after if you want,” said Trigg-Scales. “So to be told that you’re wrong—now [the student] is left with ‘this is wrong’ or at least ‘I’m confused.’ That for me was this big lightbulb that [teachers] think we’re well-meaning…but that we really have to be open to learning from our kids and not just always teaching them, but finding out culturally how things are different and then accepting it and ultimately celebrating it.”
Trigg-Scales said that this way of thinking is “what’s missing here in West Orange,” but that this could be rectified by budgeting for “diversity training” and looking for a new superintendent who has not only “worked in a diverse community,” but did so with success.
Trigg-Scales also said that she wants to focus on making sure education is not only equal, but equitable as well because she “thinks people sometimes get hung up on equality and forget about equity.”
Using a trick she learned from another educator, Trigg-Scales held up her hands, both parallel to the ground but with one hand higher than the other to represent the “white population.” Of this group, Trigg-Scales said that “some of these kids have been to Europe already, some of these kids have been in a formal pre-school situation since six months old.” The other group, represented by the lower hand, is “never out of West Orange,” she said.
“They had been at home, [and] they have not socialized and so we bring them in the school and we give them the exact same thing and so you know with these hands,” said Trigg-Scales, who then slid both hands up diagonally, maintaining the gap between them, “everybody’s progressing, but we’re never doing anything to close that gap that comes to us as a gap.”
As a member of the WOBOE, Trigg-Scales hopes to see more data-driven efforts to try and “even the playing field” in district programs, including the gifted program and advanced placement classes.
Additionally, Trigg-Scales is also passionate about recruiting teachers of color into the district.
“We only want the most highly qualified teachers here in West Orange, but we need to seek out teachers of color who are highly qualified,” she said. “No one is suggesting, that we hire teachers of color just because [it’s a teacher] of color. It’s insulting to suggest that…
“Recruiting is sending a team of administrators of color, or a teacher and going into colleges and talking to the [college] kids, telling them about West Orange, telling them of opportunities here.”
As a member of the board’s legislature committee, Trigg-Scales is currently working on this issue with Assemblywoman Mila Jacey, who she said is speaking with colleges and is willing to help West Orange seek out more teachers of color.
“Equally as important as finding teachers and hiring them is retaining them,” said Trigg-Scales. “It’s difficult…to go into a setting where there aren’t a whole lot of people who look like you. You can feel uncomfortable, you can feel unwelcome and so you have to work hard once you find that wonderful teacher [to make] sure that they’re getting what they need to be supported.”
In order to accomplish this, she added, teachers “need to be groomed, they need to be coached and they need to be mentored.”
Terry Trigg-Scales also sits on the board’s policy committee alongside WOBOE vice president Sandra Mordecai. In this position, Trigg-Scales draws from her experience working as the assistant superintendent at Montclair Public Schools, where she “was second in command, in charge of curriculum, assessment, instruction, [and] professional development, and so [she knows] what it’s supposed to look like.” She stated that it is “truly an advantage having the background in making decisions and policy for West Orange.”
As a result of her experience as a former administrator, there has been a certain amount of redundancy in some of the training sessions for Trigg-Scales over the last few months. However, Trigg-Scales said she still finds it valuable to learn from other board members and see “how differently they conduct their business than we do here in West Orange.
“I really did not know how much training was required or how often there are opportunities for training,” she said.
Although board members are not required to attend all New Jersey Boards Association-sponsored training sessions, Trigg-Scales said that in order to “be a conscientious board member,” members need to learn “as much as [they] can as quickly as [they] can.”
In addition to the trainings, which Trigg-Scales explained are especially useful for networking with other districts and sharing Best Practices, board members are also expected to attend school and district events.
“You know, [West Orange] High School is one of the most active high schools I have ever seen,” Trigg-Scales said about the number of events and extra-curriculars available at the high school. “There are probably four-or-five things happening just there, and then throughout the district there are other events going on. I’m retired, but still a very active retiree, so really finding the time to get it all in could be challenging.”
On the subject of her retirement, Trigg-Scales said she finds it to be very advantageous because she “could never work” and be on the board at the same time.
“I admire my colleagues who work and have families and manage to give this amount of time to the district,” she said. “I’m in awe that they can do that.”
Stating that Montclair always had seven board members compared to West Orange’s five, Trigg-Scales believes that having more board members would help equalize the amount of work that needs to be done—especially as the WOBOE enters budget season and digs into the long-awaited superintendent search—but Trigg-Scales is up for the challenge.
Outside of her position on the school board, Trigg-Scales runs an educational consulting company, coaching principals from other districts. She also enjoys traveling, painting and coming up with new ideas for a potential book in her future.