Fall term: sweeping changes

Photo by Ron Leir Part of Belleville Middle School’s former library converted to classroom space to relieve overcrowding.
Photo by Ron Leir
Part of Belleville Middle School’s former library converted to classroom space to relieve overcrowding.


New classrooms, updated academic policies and courses, revamped security and staff appointments were all part of the Belleville public schools landscape with the opening of this fall term.

Two years ago, the Board of Education adopted an administrators’ recommendation to move all sixth-graders to the Middle School to join the seventh- and eighth-graders and, as things played out, “there was absolutely no room in that building” to adequately accommodate everyone, according to Schools Superintendent Richard Tomko.

Tomko was recently named a 2015-16 Lexington Educational Leadership Fellow for providing support to districts “that are beginning to implement personalized learning environments for students.”

To remedy the overcrowding situation, Tomko said, the district got approval from the Essex County superintendent of schools to convert the school’s second-floor media center into two classrooms to more evenly distribute the overflow. The work was done in-house during the summer.

Also during the summer, Tomko said, “we put in a summer reading program: children in grades 6 to 12 were assigned books appropriate to their age level to read and report on when they returned to class in September. Kids in grades K to 5 could choose something to read from our library log and they have to write a synopsis of what they read and talk with their parents about the book.”

In other happenings, the district has restored World Languages to the curriculum to comply with state education rules so now, elementary school students are offered a choice of Italian or Spanish.

“We’re also adding a high school program in Engineering/ Math/Medical Services,” Tomko said. The plan is to launch with up to 26 freshmen and “grow that each year with an opportunity for work/ study in the fourth year.”

District-wide, Tomko said, “every teacher has a laptop, which is used in concert with a smartboard, and we’ve got banks of laptops for students.” Another electronic tool deployed by the district is the “parent portal,” through which parents can keep track of what their kids are being taught, he said.

As of Jan. 1, Tomko said that teachers will be expected to file lesson plans online to allow for better continuity of instruction. That will also likely make it easier for instructional supervisors to help evaluate how teachers and students are going about achieving their goals.

Under a new policy adopted by the board, students will have to achieve a numerical score of 70 to get a passing grade. “We raised passing from 65 to challenge both students and teachers,” he said. “We’ll examine that policy in January.”

A new staff appointment the district recently made – Rick Acosta as director of research and assessment – will be looked to by Tomko to help keep track of students’ academic performance as they advance through the grades.

“We’ve had no data reporting — no vehicle to get into the classroom to measure this matrix,” Tomko said. “So we’ve added this position.”

Replacing Acosta as the principal of School 4 is Dora Cavallo; Shana Wright, previously a Bergenfield educator, is now Middle School principal; and Caleb Rhodes, formerly an Elmwood Park administrator, was named principal of School 3.

Another new administrator is Giovanni Cusmano, formerly of the Paterson school system, named director of special projects/grant management coordinator, to assume some of the duties previously performed by longtime employee Paul Cummins, who retired as assistant superintendent in June.

On the security front, Teodoro Zangari was hired as the new chief school safety officer/registrar to oversee a staff of ex-law enforcement officers outfitted in new uniforms who are trained to do walk-throughs in school buildings and be “more community friendly,” Tomko said. “We’ve also devised new traffic patterns and dropoff points for parents who drive their kids to school.”

Surveillance video units placed in classrooms and faculty room that triggered grievances by the Belleville Education Association have been removed, Tomko said. Instead, “we are adding cameras in school stairwells.” And, soon he expects to have in place a ‘virtual lobby’ system at the high school for better control of “everyday [walk-in] traffic.” The projected $50,000 cost figures to be offset by a safety grant to the district, he said. The plan is “to start at the high school and trickle down to the other schools.” The RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) remote tracking system – another controversial security measure that drew the BEA’s ire – is gone, Tomko said.

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