WEST ORANGE, NJ – Edison Middle School has been named a 2020 “School to Watch” by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, making it one of only two new schools in New Jersey to receive the prestigious accreditation this year. (George Washington Middle School in Wayne received the other recognition.)

“It is no coincidence, in my view, that Edison Middle School has been selected as a Schools to Watch,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Scott Cascone. “Edison’s consistent emphasis and use of distributed leadership has helped to foster a shared sense of purpose and a mission that is built upon high expectations for students and staff all operating within an environment which is nurturing, rigorous and innovative.”

While the recognition of receiving a “School to Watch” is a prestigious accomplishment, Edison’s journey to achieve it makes it all the more satisfying. Unlike most schools that make the decision to work toward the goal of becoming a “School to Watch,” Edison fought back from a technicality that placed it in “Focus School” status for several years.

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Principal Xavier Fitzgerald and Assistant Principal Steve Melendez know only too well the unique situation that running a Central Six Middle School can bring.

Drawing from the entire township, the Central Six boasts a broad-range demographic. There are only two known Central Six Middle schools in the state: Thomas A. Edison Middle School in West Orange and Mt. Pleasant Middle School in Livingston.

The journey began in 2011 with the annual review of Edison’s performance based on New Jersey state assessments. One of the criteria designating a school a Focus School is a “Largest Within-School Gaps,” or  “schools with the largest in-school proficiency gap between the highest-performing subgroup and the combined proficiency of the two lowest-performing subgroups.”

The difference between the school’s highest-performing subgroup and the two lowest-performing subgroups was one-tenth of one percent. Because of that gap, Edison was designated as a “Focus School.”

Between 2011 and 2016, Fitzgerald and Melendez worked with administrators, faculty and parents to make the necessary changes that would remove Edison from Focus School status.

During the 2011-2012 school year, Fitzgerald and the team at Edison improved time on task with teachers and the school switched to block scheduling. Class sizes were reduced and additional teachers were hired. A balanced literacy approach was examined for English Language Arts, and the transition from Everyday Math to Connected Math was strengthened.

Other district initiatives like Benchmark testing and the implementation of the Marzano Model for teacher evaluation aided in the process.

“It made me take a harder look at how we were doing things at EMS and how we could improve it,” said Fitzgerald.

The effort was quickly noticed by the state, which began sending other schools in “Focus” status to EMS after the first year to see what was being done as schedule-and instructional-wise. EMS staff also presented during Summer RAC sessions during the required “Focus School” training with the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE).

On Dec. 10, 2015, then-president Barack Obama signed the “Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA),” replacing the No Child Left Behind Act. As a result, changes were made in reporting requirements and criteria and Edison was well on its way to exiting “Focus School” status.

In a letter from the NJDOE dated June 30, 2017, Acting Commissioner Kimberley Harrington stated the following:

“Based on the exit criteria set forth in NJAC 6A:33-2.1(e)(1)-(4), a Focus School is eligible to exit status if it fails to meet the definition of a Focus School for two consecutive years after implementation of the SIP; successfully implements all interventions required by the Quality Service Review (QSR) as determined by the RAC; meets performance targets for its two lowest-performing subgroups and/or demonstrates high subgroup growth as measured by Student Growth Percentiles (mSGP); or reduces the number of students not graduating. As a result of your success according to these metrics, your school will be removed from the current list of Focus Schools and will no longer be supported by the Regional Achievement Centers (RACs).”

At the time, Fitzgerald said he was thrilled that the staff would not “have to live under the stigma of being a Focus School any longer,” describing the academic and related arts teachers as “Highly Qualified Teachers (HQT) in the subject areas they teach.”

To be considered an HQT by the federal government, teachers must have: at least a bachelor’s degree; a valid state certification (CE and CEAS are considered state certification); no requirements waived; no emergency or conditional certificates; and demonstrated content expertise in the core academic subject(s) he or she teaches.

“I would put my staff up against any staff at any school anywhere,” said Fitzgerald.

To have a strong team, a school needs strong leaders to empower them. Edison has that with Principal Xavier Fitzgerald and Assistant Principal Steve Melendez.

“I knew I wanted a career in education since I was 20 years old,” said Fitzgerald, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in elementary education in 1994 and a master’s degree in urban education with a concentration in administration and supervision in 2003, and is set to graduate in 2021 with a doctorate in educational leadership.

He was also an award-winning mathematics teacher and assistant principal in Roselle until beginning at Edison in 2005.

The pairing of Fitzgerald and Melendez began in 2008.

Melendez, who had previously worked in the district as a social worker and Child Study Team member for nine years, holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology, a Master of Social Work degree and a master’s degree in educational administration and supervision.

“Being named a Focus School became a blessing in disguise,” said Fitzgerald. “It challenged us to change our narrative and to institute better practices. We began to understand who we are and what we are about as a transitional sixth-grade middle school.

“We knew we had an exceptional teaching staff, but it was important to get them invested in the process by asking them, ‘What’s your why?’ That’s what sets forth their purpose.”

Following the removal of Focus School status in 2016, Edison moved to a seven-period, 55-minute schedule to ensure all core subjects (Math, Science, Social Studies and ELA) had equal time. During the 2017-2018 school year, the team stepped up their Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) offerings along with coding and computer application classes. Mandarin was added as a second World Language course and the school began implementation of the new mandated science program.

In 2018, Melendez came to Fitzgerald and said, “I think we’re ready to apply for Schools to Watch status,” and a committee was formed comprised of administrators, teachers, and parents to begin the process. The criteria for becoming a “School to Watch” is wide-ranging:

ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURES AND PROCESSES. The school is a learning organization that establishes norms, structures, and organizational arrangements to support and sustain its trajectory toward excellence.

ACADEMIC EXCELLENCE. The school is academically excellent. It challenges all students to use their minds well.

DEVELOPMENTAL RESPONSIVENESS. The school is sensitive to the unique developmental challenges of early adolescence.

SOCIAL EQUITY. The school is socially equitable, democratic, and fair. It provides every student with high-quality teachers, resources, learning opportunities and supports. It keeps positive options open for all students.

“Becoming a School to Watch was not about getting a banner,” said Fitzgerald. “It was our goal that Edison’s Instructional Practices become an example.”

As the committee began its work, the 2018-2019 school year brought with it more changes in district ideation, including the adoption of the Charlotte Danielson Evaluation Model, the implementation of MAP assessments, revision of intervention and referral services and addition of staff-directed technology PLC’s.

In 2018, Edison became the first West Orange school to receive a “Future Ready Schools Bronze Certification.”

The school worked with Director of Technology Fil Santiago and tech specialist Diana DaCosta to integrate the Future Ready effort to “maximize digital learning opportunities and help school districts move quickly toward preparing students for success in college, a career and citizenship.”

The Future Ready effort is geared to “provide districts with resources and support to ensure that local technology and digital learning plans align with instructional best practices, are implemented by highly trained teachers and lead to personalized learning experiences for all students, particularly those from traditionally under-served communities.”

At the start of the 2019 school year, Edison applied for the “School to Watch” status.

The school added an Academic Intervention Team (with a literacy focus); added a literacy coach; added a full-time English Language Learner teacher to co-teach with science, math and social studies teachers; infused a financial literacy course into its computer and coding classes; added an Extended Academic Development program; and implemented Reflection Circle Time aligned with restorative practices.

Co-Director Dr. Gail Nelson Hilliard of National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform visited the school in early February, and Edison received the news that it had been named a School to Watch earlier this month.

“The application process was 1.5 years in the making, but ensuring the necessary components were all in place took 10 years in total,” said Fitzgerald. "However, we’re not resting on our laurels.”

In fact, Fitzgerald, Melendez and the staff have become even more focused as their vision of excellence has taken shape, and they have continued to evolve its best practices.

This year, teachers are requested to sit in on each other’s classes informally to see what is done in their classrooms and learning environments.

“The teachers get to see the exemplary instructional practices they are all doing,” said Melendez, adding that another component is the continued development of teacher leadership. “Teachers need to take care of each other so they can take care of the kids’ learning communities.”

Fitzgerald and Melendez are particularly pleased with the initial results of the Reflection Circle, a new approach to the school’s discipline policy entailing detention, in-school and out-of-school suspensions.

“In a review of Edison’s 2016 and 2017 school discipline data, we recognized that there were a number of students who were repeat offenders,” said Fitzgerald.

In 2018, the building administration, along with school counselors Jeff LaFoon and Pam Stewart, attended a workshop on restorative practices and collectively decided that it was best to move toward implementing restorative practices when dealing with student discipline.

Over the summer, the building administration looked at the 2018 school data and developed the Reflection Circle Program aligned with restorative practices.

The counselors now meet with students once a week after school for 55 minutes. The students’ behavioral infractions can range from out-of-school suspension to those that have received administrative detention. The goal of the program is to demonstrate the “Five R’s,” which include Respect, Relationships, Responsibility for actions, Repairing the harm and Reintegrating students into their normal routine.

“It’s always students and teachers first,” said Fitzgerald. “Our students are new every year and we want to meet their needs.”

The National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform will recognize all middle schools designated a “School to Watch” in Washington, D.C. in June at its annual national conference.