Cranford considers overhauling school district

CRANFORD, NJ — Superintendent of Schools Scott Rubin is seeking to engage the community and solicit input on a sweeping array of changes he first outlined in the school board’s Oct. 8 workshop meeting.

The biggest changes in what Rubin has termed a “reimagining” of the district would be the creation of free full-day kindergarten and the redistribution of students among the schools to create Cranford Middle School for grades six to eight at Hillside Avenue School.

Community meetings will take place at 7 p.m. on Oct. 30, Nov. 28, and Dec. 17, at Cranford High School to discuss the changes.
Under the plan, there would be four schools for students in kindergarten to grade two. So, Bloomingdale Avenue and Walnut Avenue schools would remain the same; Brookside Place would shift from kindergarten to grade five to kindergarten to grade two; and Livingston Avenue would change from grades three to five to kindergarten to grade two.

Orange Avenue would become Cranford Intermediate School for grades three to five and Hillside, which houses students in kindergarten through grade eight, would become Cranford Middle School for grades six to eight.

To balance the student populations of the schools, some students who would normally go to Bloomingdale would instead attend Brookside Place. No teaching positions would be lost under the plan, but some would be “repurposed” to cover the kindergarten classes, Rubin said.

He said at the meeting that he would like to have a referendum in December 2019 and implement the changes during the 2020-2021 school year.
“I know that there are oftentimes emotional responses when talking about change and, in truth, this wasn’t easy to bring forward,” Rubin said at the meeting. “I spent lots of nights thinking about this in terms of bringing it forward. But, as I said in the beginning, it would have been irresponsible not to bring this forward, and we as a team and as a board thought there were so many benefits to this opportunity that, again, it would have been irresponsible not to bring it up.

“In fact, I would be more nervous if I were to pitch you the setup we have right now. Could you imagine if I came in here and said, ‘I have this great idea. We’re going to do a three to eight. We’re going to do a K to eight. We’re going to do a K to five. We’re going to do a K to two. We’re going to do a three to five.’ Listen, I understand how these things happen. It builds up over time because it was responding to needs that were important at that time. But I would tell you that I think that this plan could really be responsive to our students right now and what we want to provide for them. So, let’s continue. Let’s have the conversation. Let’s engage in this and see if it’s the right thing.”

Rubin said the impetus for the “reimagining” of the district started when he took a “look, listen and learn” tour of the schools shortly after becoming the superintendent July 1, 2017. He started to hear the same suggestions repeatedly, most often one for full-day kindergarten. He said 92 percent of the school districts in the state offer free all-day kindergarten. Among the school systems in Union County that do not are Westfield and Summit.

Although the creation of full-day kindergarten may have been a priority, Rubin said the plan is an attempt to solve several issues: Equity among schools, duplication of services, class size and lack of dedicated rooms for art and music programs in the elementary schools. Rubin called the elementary and middle school model at schools such as Hillside Avenue “schizophrenic” because “they don’t know what they are.” In some cases, students aren’t allowed to walk down certain hallways because the school is trying to keep the grade levels separated.

“The question I always hate to get is when people say to me, ‘So, how many schools do you have? How many of them are elementary and how many of them are middle?’” Rubin said. “I always take a pause. They’re like, ‘Don’t you know?’ I’m like, ‘I know, but it’s complicated. How much time do you have?’”
The biggest proposed change to the high school would be the implementation of a career academy model, which Rubin described as a system that seeks to prepare students for careers and college through a network of teachers, mentors and community partners. As principal at the Union County Academy for Performing Arts in Scotch Plains, Rubin created a partnership with Kean University.

“So, all of my seniors, I was principal of the time, they actually went over to Kean University for their full senior year experience,” he said. “When they graduated, they got a high school diploma and they finished their first year of college. Huge saving for everyone and a great opportunity. Now, we’re looking for things that work for our kids.”

Rubin said busing will be an issue, but he plans to create a transportation task force and has already spoke to police Chief Ryan Greco, fire Chief Dan Czeh and the Office of Emergency Management’s Matt Lubin about helping with that plan.

Rubin said he cannot estimate the cost of the “reimagining” of the district because it depends on whether residents want all or part of the plan. He said that to create full-day kindergarten in the district without implementing his plan would necessitate building eight classrooms among four schools.

“And even if you did that as a referendum, there’s no way to pay for the salary” for the teachers, he said. “You’ve got the buildings but no staffing. This provides you the opportunity to get them the classrooms that would fit everyone and then also be able to repurpose staff to staff our full-day kindergarten and provide other needs that we have.

“So, it would be paid for with what we have in the district through the reimagination process. We would also then decrease the amount of money that would be paid for a referendum because otherwise you cannot do that full-day kindergarten program.”