WEST ORANGE, NJ — For several weeks, the West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) has been listening to the multitudes of parents, music faculty and students who have implored that the board find a different solution to meeting the 150 minutes of state-mandated physical education (P.E.) and health education instead of reducing instructional time for elementary music from twice a week to once a week.
The ongoing discussion continued at this week's WOBOE after first being addressed as part of the recently approved budget for the 2019-20 school year.
Lauren Meehan, Director of the Newark Arts Education Roundtable and a Class of 2004 graduate of West Orange High School, explained that if not for the encouragement and support from all the teachers she had, she would not have been able to play violin for heads of state, congress or at Lincoln Center.
“Music prepares kids for the real world and provides 21st century skills,” said Meehan, who was in fourth grade at West Orange Schools when she picked up her instrument.
Meehan continued that that she fears the “rigor and opportunities for students to learn music and develop their language skills in music is lessened because at their earliest exposure, they have a reduced opportunity to learn and to access music education at the West Orange Schools.”
Sarah Kravits read a letter on behalf of fellow parent Sarah Bednarick, who is a band director along with her husband, Jeffrey Conrad, at Roxbury High School. Bednarick, a mother of two whose five year old is set to attend Redwood Elementary School in the fall, explained in her letter that West Orange’s music program is what pushed her family to settle in the township.
“It may well be that our drive to be compliant with the state and the government has led us to ignore our greatest responsibility to be compliant with the needs of our children from a very young age,” said Bednarick. “I urge you, please find another way to incorporate health education without cutting music education in half.”
Referencing the budget presentation that was made in March, Bednarick said that the district promised “to support and maintain among many other things, fine, visual and performing arts.” This, she said, means supporting not only older students in the program, but the very young students who would be up past their bedtime if they attended the board meeting.
“Be an advocate for those children,” she said in her letter. “If you’re struggling to find a solution, ask for help. Ask the educators and administrators in the trenches, those who work with our children day in and day out.”
Bednarick concluded that this will take “creativity, time and compromise,” but that she is confident the district can “find a progressive solution that is in compliance with the needs of our children.”
In response to these comments, board member Mark Robertson called for a restoration of the time that had been “cut” from class schedules.
However, other members clarified once again that no cuts have actually been made to the elementary music program, which is why the district and concerned parents are currently in discussion to find compromises to fulfil the new state mandate.
“We haven’t actually approved or removed anything,” said fellow board member Cheryl Merklinger, who reiterated that the board has only approved the budget for the next school year. “We did not say that we were cutting music or adding health or whatnot. It was mentioned that that’s what the plan was, but there’s no vote on it…We’re still hearing ideas, and I think we all agree that we need to hear out what the other options are.”
Board member Terry Trigg-Scales also suggested for the district to “do a survey of surrounding school districts to see how they are delivering P.E. and health.” She sated that no other school is currently able to reach the mandated 150 minutes, but added that learning from other districts will help the West Orange district “as we move forward.”
Acting Superintendent Eveny de Mendez thanked everyone “for their consistent and continued advocacy for music,” and she also conceded that it is “important to continue to look at the schedule […] at different options that are being presented while also continuing to support our academic programs.”
To that end, de Mendez explained that she has been speaking with supervisors across content areas including music and P.E./health. Many things have been suggested during those meetings including making cuts to several programs—such as English Language Arts, science and social studies or having general education teachers teach health—but those are not satisfactory options, she said.
De Mendez promised the public that she would go back to the drawing board, but said that if the district can “make it happen without compromising any [subject areas], then that’s something [it] can do.”
WOBOE Vice President Sandra Mordecai suggested for President Ken Alper to release a statement setting the record straight about the state of West Orange’s music program and the health mandate.
The district has until August to decide before schedules are finalized and sent out to families for the upcoming school year.
The next board of education meeting will be held on June 17 at 8 p.m. in the high school library.