WEST ORANGE, NJ — In anticipation for Thursday's Town Hall, which was a community discussion addressing the West Orange Township's need for a "More Racially Inclusive Township," West Orange Public Schools (WOPS) Superintendent Dr. J. Scott Cascone held a live virtual discussion on 'Race Respected' on Instagram on Wednesday.

The conversation, which was open to all community members, also served to answer any questions that the public had on any topic, mainly focusing on the district's efforts to promote inclusivity through hiring practices, diversity training, and opting for a more multicultural curriculum.

Even though this week has been "a difficult week" for many, Cascone said that he had heard "a lot of moving feedback in terms of things that we can do as a school system."

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Speaking briefly about his Equity Action Plan, which was published on Facebook last week, the superintendent clarified that he had wanted to highlight what had previously been done in the district, but understanding that there were inherent limitations to certain items—including the recognition of Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month—Cascone said that the district needs to look at the social studies curriculum and go beyond what the New Jersey Student Learning Standards (NJSLS) dictate.

“For example, the ancient African civilizations and empires is barely addressed in the NJSLS,” he said. “When we know that these empires—these civilizations were some of the earliest, advanced, and learned civilizations that have ever existed.”

Cascone continued that by going beyond the standards, the WOPS district will be able to ensure that the histories reflected within the social studies curriculum will be reflective of a multicultural student body.

To that end, the superintendent said that he recommended for the West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) and Eveny de Mendez, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction to put together two curriculum writing teams over the summer to work on the pre-K-through-12 social studies curriculum and a social justice curriculum.

“I heard a student say at the [Black Lives Matter] demonstration on Saturday [that] when we’re talking about black history, that ‘my history, our history is more than slavery,’” Cascone said. “I think that’s a really important viewpoint to hear.”

He continued that, while he believes that the curriculum does go beyond slavery, it is important that students are “learning about their own background” especially when they are young, and the curriculum should honor black history, Hispanic history, as well as Asian history. In addition, he said that the district should “provide students with educational experiences that are providing a complete picture of their history, both of tragedies, but also of triumphs.”

While answering a question about how students can examine false narratives in history, Cascone said that students are instilled with the ability to “critically think,” “to draw their own conclusions” and “to do their own research.”

Looking at improving curriculum can also enhance the idea of “culturally sensitive teaching and building inclusive classrooms,” Cascone said, adding that this can be accomplished through diversity training.

“It’s an acknowledgment on some level that I as a person, as an educator, I’m willing to take an introspective look at myself and understand how my upbringing or my background or perceptions are impacting the way I view the world, the way I view others and it may be impacting the way I handle my classroom and interact with students,” he said.

Because of the closure of schools due to the coronavirus pandemic, Cascone said that a training session which was originally scheduled for May 15 in conjunction with the revamped Diversity, Equity, and Access Committee was cancelled, but that the administrative team will be receiving training over the summer.

The district is still looking at the best way to provide diversity training to all staff members.

In terms of currently ongoing work, Cascone also said that the district will continue working with the Diversity Committee and its subcommittees, which are focused on recruitment, hiring, retention and training.

So far, the superintendent said, the Diversity Committee helped to administer two surveys, the first, a school climate and culture survey in order to understand the perceptions of parents, staff and students as it relates to school culture and climate and specifically to race, equity, and access.

And the second, a disproportionality study relative to student achievement, course enrollment, suspensions, and attendance.

“We need to be transparent in our data,” Cascone said, adding that after the committee meets again with Tom Puryear, President of the Oranges and Maplewood chapter of the NAACP, the data will be made public. “We need to shine a light on any disproportionality or inequities that exist in our system at any level and understand them.”

Next week on June 17, Cascone said that the district is organizing an expert panel, with experts from the community and from the Diversity Committee speaking “specifically from informed perspectives” on human resources, recruiting, hiring/retention of diverse candidates, as it relates to curriculum and instruction, cultural competence, how it relates to training and parental engagement.

“We’re also going to be having a student perspective,” he said. “I’ve invited Darlene Folas, our board student representative to join us for that panel discussion.”

He added that the panel discussion is another opportunity for listening and learning, while “also conducting an honest appraisal of our systems.”

During the question and answer portion, Cascone acknowledged the need for “safe spaces” for the community and his staff where people can have tough and honest conversations and establish trust.

“You can’t grow, you can’t learn, you can’t have tough conversations and critical conversations without trust, and without a safe space,” he said. “We owe our brothers and sisters and the people who we care about that.”

Cascone also said that more needs to be done to effectively communicate with multilingual families, by offering translated material in more languages including Haitian Creole and meeting more frequently with ESL parents.

In the future, Cascone said that more needs to be done to attract a larger, diverse pool of applicants, because the current demographic makeup of the district’s professional staff is not reflective of the larger student population.

For the last two years, the superintendent said that there has been a diversity job fair, and regarding the hiring from last year, Cascone said that the district has made progress because 10 African American, 10 Hispanic, two multiracial and Asian certificated staff members were hired.

Even though they are good numbers, Cascone said that the district needs to work on sending a clear message that “West Orange is a school district that values diversity” and ensure that it has access to “the largest number of diverse candidates as possible” by establishing relationships with institutions of higher learning and various state institutions.

The superintendent also answered a variety of questions about how reopening will look like in September.

More information will be known in the next two weeks about whether the district will continue virtual schooling or have a hybrid school schedule where some days are virtual, and some days students are on-site.

“I’m hoping and praying that we are at least able to have cohorts of students in the building each day, so that we can guarantee that students will at least have some on-site, face-to-face interaction with teachers,” Cascone said.

If schools remain closed, Cascone said that he is planning on meeting with teachers, to look at opportunities for students to have more synchronous interaction with teachers.

For parents who may not feel comfortable sending their children to school due to “medical fragility or simply parental prerogative,” their decision would need to be honored, the superintendent said, adding that those students “would continue to be educated virtually.”

Students who are also in possession of a Chromebook will not be asked to return them, except for graduating high school seniors.

“I encourage you to tune in next week for our expert panel,” said Cascone at the conclusion of the discussion. “And I think I’ve said it all, but you have my commitment to this. We’ve heard our brothers and sisters; we care about you and we’re going to do what’s necessary to make changes.”