WEST ORANGE, N.J. — This week, West Orange Public Schools’ (WOPS) Superintendent Dr. J. Scott Cascone revealed during his report that the school district received a cut in its state aid totaling $1.5 million, because of a significant loss of state revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Originally, it was thought that the district was going to lose $2.3 million or all of the additional aid that was promised to the district for the 2020-21 school year, but since that is not the case Cascone said that he will work with the business office to develop a proposal and collaborate with the West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) on the “best way to recoup that money.”
“I will say that figure is not nearly as daunting in terms of finding ways to recoup this funding,” Cascone said. “And presently, I’m not foreseeing any significant or drastic impacts on either staffing or programming as a result of those losses.”
Additional information will be forthcoming to the public, Cascone said, once it has been discussed among the administration and the board.
As the WOPS’ first virtual school year draws to a close, parents and members of the community also voiced their concern at this week’s WOBOE meeting about how special needs children will be accommodated for the upcoming virtual extended school year (ESY) program.
“Have we adopted new tools, new practices on how to support special service children that are going into the ESY program?” asked West Orange Parent Sharon Bulanhagui, who has one child with an Individualized Educational Program (IEP).
Fellow parent Kristin Russell asked for students to have “more connections with the teachers” in addition to a more rigorous ESY program, explaining that she was worried for her youngest child, a pre-school student who has a disability and an IEP because her child had “fallen behind greatly.”
Cascone said that while conducting these programs virtually is not ideal, “students who participate in the program can expect a different experience [or] synchronous interaction with teachers for instruction.”
“And that will also be the case for our high school summer school program and Step Up program,” he said. “It will look and feel very different from the daily experience.”
With the importance being placed on student-teacher interaction, Cascone continued that he saw this as an opportunity to pilot an approach which would be different from available distance learning platforms, like New Jersey Virtual High School or Apex Learning, and something to aspire to if the district were to “go into more long-term virtual learning down the road.”
In other news, former WOBOE member Sandra Mordecai questioned the board on why it would implement a new autism program at Gregory Elementary School.
“Isn’t there already one in Kelly School?” she asked, adding that in light of losing $1.5 million in state aid, she was surprised to see the Board reverse a move that was meant to consolidate special education teams and resources.
Although the superintendent agreed that “Kelly School has historically been the place where we’ve housed the majority of our special education programs,” space is not unlimited.
“So, there have been occasions where we’ve had to establish programs in other schools where space is permitted,” he said. “For example, we offer a BD program at Redwood School and due to a lack of space we have begun autism programming at Gregory School.
Cascone continued that in addition to alleviating issues with space, having another program will keep students at their community schools and lessen the expense of sending students out of district.
During the meeting, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Eveny de Mendez explained in her report that elementary school students will shift from a pass/fail evaluation method on their e-learning report card to a three-tiered method—meets, approaches and not evaluated—which would not focus on failing as a measure.
According to de Mendez, meets means that a student “consistently meets grade level standards and expectations” as demonstrated by their e-learning experience. Approaches means that a student is “progressing and understanding, however grade-level concepts and skills are not yet mastered” requiring additional practice and support. And not evaluated is not an ‘F,’ but it means that the student has not submitted an assignment, or they have not engaged in learning.
De Mendez continued that even though this evaluation method will not be used when students return to school, this change was necessary because many students were not able to submit assignments during the first two weeks of virtual schooling.
The superintendent also added that the grading more accurately captures the kind of work that is accomplished at home.
Also, according to the assistant superintendent, June 12 is last day of work for students K-5 and on June 19, e-learning report cards will be sent to parents via email and by mail for those who do not have access to the internet.
Students grades six through 12 will have their last day to submit assignments on June 17, with report cards also being sent on June 19.
During the meeting, Cascone also provided an update for end of year ceremonies and graduations.
Since Gov. Murphy still has not lifted the current capacity limitation of 25 people for onsite graduations and other large gatherings, the district has gone ahead to plan virtual ceremonies for students.
In addition to having a virtual ceremony, elementary school principals are planning recognition events, which may include a drive-by parade and students will get t-shirts and lawn signs as they have in the past.
At the middle schools, which are also planning virtual ceremonies, Cascone said that the district has worked with the PTA to subsidize the purchase of yearbooks for sixth graders and eighth graders.
And at the West Orange High School (WOHS), in addition to the virtual ceremony, which is planned for June 23, Principal Hayden Moore is planning a drive-through event, with the West Orange Police Department (WOPD) on the night of graduation.
Following the week of graduation, Cascone also said that parents and graduates will be invited to take pictures and receive their diploma at the WOHS in a safe manner. Students have also begun the process of dropping off and picking up items at the high school. More information on when students will be able to do so at the middle schools will be forthcoming.
The next virtual WOBOE meeting will be June 22 at 7:30 p.m.