As we close in on Election Day, we took some time to interview the Jersey City School Board candidates. Stay tuned in the upcoming days for additional candidates answering the same questions.
What’s your full name and what relationship have you had with the Jersey City Public School system?
We are Jersey City United: Luis Felipe Fernandez, Asmaa Abdalla & Matthew Schapiro.
Luis Felipe Fernandez: In my position as Pastor of Fountain of Salvation Church, I have successfully advocated for high-quality after school programming such as New City Kids in our public schools. And I have been involved with the educational struggles of our parishioners for many years, helping wherever I could. With my wife, Betsy, I am the parent of two young children who will attend Jersey City Public Schools when they are of school age.
Asmaa Abdalla: I attended Jersey City Public Schools for my entire school career, graduating from Liberty High School. Several of my younger siblings still attend JCPS. I am now studying Dentistry at Kean University while acting as a key advocate during the push to recognize the Eid Al-Adha holiday, advocate for restorative justice in high schools, and make school menus more inclusive to all students.
Matthew Schapiro: Along with my wife, Marni, I am the parent of three children; my oldest is a JCPS student. I have actively supported progressive Board of Education initiatives for six years such as enhanced focus on student performance, new S.T.E.A.M. programs, the Universal Breakfast Program, and bringing equity to every Jersey City student. As a president of the Hamilton Park Neighborhood Association, I fought for access to more preK classrooms for our students and families. Now I am keenly focused on improving communication between the district, our schools, and our parents.
In what ways has the JCPS been successful? How can we enhance and expand upon those successes?
We believe the JCPS has been successful in many important ways. Graduation rates are up. Dropout rates are down. Gains are occurring among all demographics of students. There are more high school students taking Advanced Placement course than ever before. We have a nationally-recognized Universal Breakfast Program offering a nutritious breakfast to every JCPS student – regardless of need – helping to further combat inattentiveness due to hunger among our students. The new ST.E.A.M. focused Innovation High School is drawing students from around the city. The new “Community School” model at PS15 is one that must be expanded throughout the city to all school communities which could benefit from additional resources in health care, dental care, career training and placement for parents, and food banks.
Ultimately, more is now expected from our students, teachers, principals, and the entire community. Nearly all are responding positively to these increased expectations. When we increase our expectations and provide the necessary resources to support those expectations, our school community responds wonderfully.
What challenges does the JCPS face? What steps need to be taken to overcome them?
The main challenge we face as a district is all people’s natural aversion to change. Many good people have been doing the same things the same ways for a long time. And encouraging needed changes in routines and expectations is often difficult.
Communication is another big deficit right now in our school communities. In order to move our district forward, it is critical that our district and its many schools join the 21st century and implement a plan to ensure that all families and all communities feel they are connected with their local school, fellow parents, and the district at-large. This is critically important and encourages improvements in all aspects of our educational landscape.
Tell me about your ideas regarding allocation of funds and the 600 million dollar budget.
We must maintain vigorous oversight of the school budget and be constantly on the lookout for wasteful spending of monies that belong in our classrooms. Another area that deserves renewed focus is after school programming. We must ensure that programs are enriching for our students and providing them and their parents valuable structure to help them succeed during the regular school day.
Many parents are concerned about testing as a primary (and in some cases singular) tool for evaluation of students, teachers, and schools. Can you speak to that?
Testing should never be the primary evaluation tool for our students, schools, or teachers. We are also highly concerned with the new movement steering school curriculums toward “teaching to the test”. This is not only unfair to our teachers but is not a pedagogically viable approach. However in order to make sure our students are learning to the level necessary for success in the 21st century, it is important that we have some method to measure student progress. That’s why we believe a mixed approach is necessary.
This year, the school board regains control over the JCPS. What does that look like? What changes can we expect?
As the NJ Dept of Education trusts the current leadership of the Jersey City Board of Education under Superintendent Dr. Marcia Lyles, and has largely left our district to govern itself for the last four years, there will be little operative change once full local control is returned. However, if the Jersey City Board of Education shows dysfunctional governance as it has in several instances in the last year, or if district leadership is threatened, the NJ DOE will likely never return full local control to the district.
And finally, safety. Parents talk to me about this all the time. Do our kids feel safe in school?
In most cases, our students feel safe within the confines of their schools. Schools are – in most cases – secure for our students. And where they are not, those circumstances must be immediately addressed.
We must also address issues outside of our schools where our students are more vulnerable to a tragic lack of traffic safety and other urban plights from the drug trade, gangs, and other criminality.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you about that you feel needs to also be addressed?
For many years – decades in fact – our schools have not been responsive to the needs our communities. That is why Jersey City United is running a positive, independent, and community-focused campaign in this election. All of us consider it a privilege to live in this vibrant, diverse community and will be honored to serve on the Board of Education. Our commitment to solely represent the needs of the community, however, continues regardless of this election’s outcome.
We are beholden only to the students, families and residents of this city.