WEST ORANGE, NJ – With more than 50 languages spoken in the homes of West Orange Public School students and more than 1500 students coming from homes that speak languages other than English, strengthening the English Language Learners program (ELL) in the district has become a major priority. Following Monday’s “Preparing Multilingual Learners for Global Competence” presentation at the West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) meeting, the board decided to postpone the vote until it can hear more feedback from parents and community members.

During the presentation of the proposed five-year plan, both assistant superintendent Eveny de Mendez and world languages supervisor Felix Plata stressed the importance of providing ELL and world language learners with learning experiences that promote multilingualism, as well as gaining an understanding of cultural contexts and their impact on learning, society, business, industry and academia.

Mendez rolled out what she viewed as the advantages of the new plan, which would consolidate services for ELL at the Washington Elementary School (bringing together the ELL teachers and resources at Washington, Kelly and Redwood Elementary Schools), Gregory Elementary School (serving the ELL students now at Gregory, Hazel, Mount Pleasant and St. Cloud Elementary Schools), and Kelly Elementary School, which would continue to service ELL/Learning-Language Disabilities/inclusion population.

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She said the consolidation would increase co-planning opportunities between ELL and general education teachers, increase co-teaching opportunities and professional development, provide greater ELL parental support, and make it more possible to consistently implement an effective instructional model.

Mendez said that a major focus of the new plan is to further strengthen the ELL students’ native language skills, which will give them the tools to improve their English language skills.

“By strategically clustering ELL students by homeroom and proficiency levels, we will be able to provide greater support for teachers working with this population,” said Plata.

He said this plan to concentrate services in three schools would provide greater efficiencies than the current situation, where staffing and resources need to be stretched over seven schools.

“The current program has one ELL teacher per school covering a wide range of language proficiencies and grade levels,” said Plata. “It is an inefficient way to use staff.”

Plata added that transportation would be provided for all ELL students attending non-neighborhood schools. The additional transportation costs to the district if the plan is approved would be $13,306.23 for three buses, according to the presentation. Transportation would also be provided to the neighborhood school at the end of the day for after-care if requested.

It was the issue of taking ELL students out of their neighborhood schools that proved to the most controversial element of the plan. Mendez said this was her “number one” concern, but added it was worth doing this to better support ELL students.

Board president Ron Charles and board vice president Mark Robertson both expressed concerns about taking ELL students out of their neighborhood schools. They insisted that further input is needed from parents and teachers on this issue.

“We should get more feedback from parents and teachers on the front end,” said Robertson.

“People buy a house in West Orange with a thought of sending my kid to a particular school, and then they find out through a program like this that their child is going elsewhere,” said Charles. “I want to hear more from the parents on this issue.”  

Many of the ELL parents and teachers of ELL students who stayed to speak on this issue deep into the night also had reservations about taking children out of their neighborhood schools, where they often make their closest friends and give back a great deal to the school’s culture.

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