In March 2004, Dr. Ernest Palestis, Superintendent of Morris Hills Regional School District, convened a committee called the ESL/Diversity Committee to address academic concerns for the Hispanic population in the Morris Hills Regional School District. At that time, Dr. Mariana Vergara (founder of MIA) was asked to be a member of the committee both as a parent in the district, as well as for her expertise in connection with the Hispanic community through the Family Development Center in Dover, New Jersey.
At that time, the committee was formed to improve HSPA scores for grade 11 Hispanic students at Morris Hills High School. The scores were quite low in 2003. Additionally, the ESL program ran only at one high school and was not achieving its goal of exiting students from the program in a timely manner, providing them with grade level course work, tutorial assistance, or credit status in their courses.
The first undertaking that Dr. Vergara was involved with was helping the Morris Hills High School administrators and counselors to involve Hispanic parents in the transition from middle school to high school. By inviting Hispanic parents to special scheduling sessions during the end of their child’s eighth grade year and providing a special session with translators for the parents during our Freshmen Orientation, this quickly helped the administration and the counselors meet parents and involve them in our high school. Dr. Vergara recognized what many of us had known for years in the Morris Hills Regional District and that was that our students were often placed in the ESL program without mediation and asked to take required course work as audits until they were able to master the English language. This philosophy not only caused the students difficulty in dealing with English classes in which they were unable to function, but also to impede their academic progress by limiting their ability to build their credit totals in their academic courses. By restricting their ability to
accumulate academic credits in their classes, ESL students were extending their high school careers, and in many cases, frustrating them even further. After assessing the districts needs, several initiative were undertaken. For example, Dr. Vergara initiated a pre-high school tutorial program to prepare eighth grade students for advanced and challenging course work upon entering high school.
The program that Dr. Vergara set-up involved County College of Morris students tutoring eighth graders in core academic courses such as Biology, Algebra I, US History, and English. This began at the student’s eighth grade year and throughout the summer before he/she entered high school as freshman. The tutoring took place at both at her home and in classrooms at the middle school in which the student attended. This core group of students were then scheduled into more advanced classes as they entered their freshman year of high school. They proved to be better prepared to complete in accelerated course work at levels that were above and beyond what they may have been scheduled for as recently exited ESL students. In addition to the tutorial piece which continued throughout most of their freshman year, Morris Hills High School split its ESL program to have one ESL teacher in both Morris Knolls High School and Morris Hills High School, thereby reducing class size to help our students. The ESL program also began incorporating a bilingual Math and English teacher to work with the ESL students through an in-class support program to improve upon their reading comprehension, their writing and vocabulary skills in English, their number sense, their Geometry skills and measurement skills, and their data analysis skills in Algebra I and Geometry. This program focused upon improvement of their standardized test scores as measured by the grade 11 HSPA test.
Finally, following Dr. Vergara’s model, the district created an after school flex program where students could come for extra help with both their ESL teacher and specialized teachers in each academic area. While the Morris Hills Regional District has continued to look for ways to support and enhance the academic success of our Hispanic population, including providing academic support in a variety of new ways both during and after school hours, it was truly Dr. Vergara who was the catalyst to start these changes in the Morris Hills Regional School District. While there are many factors that are necessary to improve any group of students in the high school setting, certainly the model that Dr. Vergara helped promote here in the Morris Hills Regional District has proven to be successful for the Hispanic population. HSPA scores in Morris Hills High School for both Math and Language Arts Literacy have been among the highest in the state of New Jersey for the Hispanic population which continues to grow on a yearly basis.