WEST ORANGE, NJ — Members of the West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) and the district community reflected on the district’s recent Black History Month Scholarship Dinner during Monday’s WOBOE meeting, where many commented about not only the importance of the event, but also the impact that Black History should have on the West Orange School District as a whole.
WOBOE member Mark Robertson felt that the night was powerful for several reasons that went beyond the amount of talent that students displayed in many fronts, including poetry and dance.
“If we listen very carefully, our students are telling us a lot about what they’re feeling, what they’re experiencing as a black person or African-American person in America, in West Orange—and we need to go back and listen because they’re giving us some insights as to the challenges they face,” said Robertson.
West Orange resident Nicole Ruffo praised the event’s keynote speaker, Dr. Janice Johnson Dias, noting that since her speech is available on the GrassROOTS Community Foundation Facebook page, “everyone in West Orange should listen to this speech.” Ruffo added that she was moved by Johnson Dias’ words, echoing her belief that black history should not be confined to a single month, nor should it only be taught in social studies.
Ruffo also mentioned that more should be done in the district to adopt the Amistad curriculum, which incorporates African American studies into school curriculum to include accurate, complete and inclusive histories, as well as to employ teachers who are trained to create “safe environments to have hard discussions” about race in America.
In response to Ruffo’s comments, Acting Superintendent Eveny de Mendez mentioned that either Social Studies Supervisor Michael Figueiredo or Acting English Language Arts Supervisor Stephen Olshalsky will soon be presenting to the board on the integration of these topics in the curriculum. She also said the district intends to train its teachers to “develop clarity about history, its role and impact on students.”
While on the topic of diversity in the West Orange district, de Mendez mentioned that efforts are currently being made to reassemble a Diversity Committee to be headed by West Orange High School Principal Hayden Moore.
WOBOE Vice President Sandra Mordecai noted that there was a “racial incident” several years ago that “gave rise to a diversity study and a diversity committee.” WOBOE member Mark Robertson applauded the return of the committee, which will be tasked with considering concrete, measurable goals to be put toward hiring teachers.
However, Robertson also asked whether the district can “look at diversity and cross-cultural training or cultural competence training.” Although committees are a step in the right direction, Robertson said that “teachers need guidance on how to engage students from a cultural standpoint,” meaning that immediate training would be necessary rather than leaving decisions in the hands of a committee that might take time to make them, he added.
WOBOE member Terry Trigg-Scales also contributed to the conversation on diversity by mentioning that Assemblywoman Mila Jacey, who is currently working on an initiative with Caldwell University and other local colleges, wants to work with the West Orange school district to recruit and retain a diverse workforce in local schools.