West Orange Schools Battle Larger Class Sizes, Fewer Teachers
Superintendent: More students leaving private schools for public education
[Editor's note: This is Part Two of a two-part series on West Orange schools. Read Part One here.]
As the West Orange School District prepares next year's budget, the district is faced with a 2 percent state budget increase cap and growing pressure to maintain services with less money.
Superintendent Anthony Cavanna said besides larger class sizes and fewer extracurricular activities, it's likely many teachers will lose their jobs.
Too Much Classroom, but Who Will Go?
Last year, the district lost 28 certified staff members, which led to an increase of two or three additional students in each classroom.
When looking at layoffs, the superintendent said it is based on tenure. The district begins layoffs with non-tenured positions then tenured teachers by seniority.
In a district where the average teacher salary this year hovers close to $80,000, Cavanna said next year's layoffs could see an additional 28 teachers let go, though he said that is not definite.
Teachers aren't the only employees facing the chopping block, according to Cavanna. Administrators and guidance counselors also could get the ax. He said those positions are based more on need than tenure.
Cavanna predicts class size will continue to grow, "That's absolutely correct. There's going to be less sports, less foreign language, less music and that's the reality of the economic times that we're in."
He said the burden is now on the taxpayers. "The budget can only grow two percent and it's very hard to stay within that cap and still meet the obligations we have in health benefits, fuel costs, facility repairs ... so, it has to come from some place else," he said.
Cavanna said the debate also continues over classroom size as teacher layoffs loom and the population of students attending West Orange schools continue to grow.
"I know there's a feeling out there that smaller class size is better ... but there's not a lot of research to support that in smaller classes, kids do better," he said. "Do we prefer to have smaller classes? Yes, we would and we try to keep them as small as we can."
Alan Guenther, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Education, said he cannot accurately assess what, if any, impact a class size increase of two students will have on learning and said each district develops its own plan to control costs.
Zachary White, 18, a West Orange High School senior, said he finds the larger class sizes doable.
"I wouldn't say ... that classes are any bigger in West Orange than elsewhere. Even if that was the case, I'm not sure of how much of an impact that has," he said. "I've had great classes with 30-plus students because of the high quality of the teacher, while I've also had terrible classes with under 15 students because of the low standard of teaching."
Megan Brill, president of West Orange Board of Education, said an uncomfortable number for her is 24 or 25 students in one classroom.
"We're going to make sure there's not those numbers in the elementary school," she said, expressing that the current class sizes are increasing. "It's just going to be hard."
Kimberly Brown, 17, and a senior at the high school, said the layoffs and large classroom sizes kill students' focus.
"Large classes have more students who do not understand the material being taught. With that, a teacher spends more time answering the same question asked 14 different ways than moving on with the lesson," she said. "How can any student actually learn in an environment like that? It is frustrating and unreasonable."
From Private to Public
Exacerbating the problem in West Orange is an exodus of private school students who are returning to public schools, said Cavanna.
Instead of public school kids leaving West Orange, he's finding the opposite is true.
"You can't get what you get in public school in private schools," he said. "We've seen a lot of students in religious schools coming back to our schools ... from private schools back into our schools."
He said enrollment has increased between 100 and 150 students during the past two years. "A good percentage are from private schools," he said. "They realize economic times are bad and that maybe they can't afford the tuition any more or a private school offers (less advanced classes)."
Shira Rosenblum, 17, is a senior at West Orange High School who transferred in her sophomore year from Golda Och Academy (formerly Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union). She said it wasn't her choice to move from a private school, but she has seen the benefit of a public education.
"Both my parents and myself find the quality of education and opportunities available so much more rewarding at public school," she said. "I certainly think the quality of teaching is more enriching and of a higher quality at public school and I do not think that the size of the class really affects the quality of teaching."
She said she makes up for any lack of one-on-one time for extra help with teachers after school.
Cavanna said, though, the state's cap is making it harder to keep such "quality education" at his public schools.
Brill said next year's cuts are going to be painful to the staff, students and parents alike, "We were worried about the cuts last year and everyone did a good job of limiting the impact of these cuts, but everyone will feel these cuts."
Cavanna said the district is in a tough place, "There's not much more that we can do."
— Diarra White contributed to this report.
[Editor's note: This story first published Dec. 8 at 9:49 a.m.]