19th Century Jersey City School Waits More Than a Decade for New Quarters

Guidance counselors working in closets and a circa 1950 heating system are just two of the reasons that the principal and staff of Jersey City School 20 are tired of waiting for a new facility

At the center of a boisterous argument with the state, Jersey City’s School 20 might be best defined by its stained-glass dome or its pair of mammoth boilers, depending on where you start the tour.

The glass dome was installed with the construction of the Danforth Street building in 1899, capping a regal and oak-soaked school with the charm and detail of a Victorian mansion.

The dual boilers probably came a half-century later, their sentimentality long worn off on principal Jorge Fernandez. In between are nearly as many closets turned instructional space as actual classrooms.

Inside one long such space works the school’s guidance counselors.

Credit: NJ Spotlight
Principal Jorge Fernandez (right) stands in front of Jersey City School 20.
“We carpeted and repainted it, and the counselor does absolutely wonderful work here,” Fernandez said. “But it’s still just a closet.”

“This is a great old building, but it was built in the 19th century, and is being asked to serve 21st century needs,” he said.

This is where the dispute with the state comes in.

The Waiting Game

After months of vocal protests from parents and teachers, the state’s top construction official came to visit this week, and he left with a clear message that the community is fed up with the waiting game for a new school.

The school has been slated for new quarters practically since Fernandez joined the school 11 years ago, just as the state Supreme Court was demanding the aging and obsolete quarters of many urban schools needed replacement or renovation.

That $8 billion school construction program—the nation’s largest—saw its own fits and starts in its first five years, but a new School 20 finally looked real in 2008 when the project was chosen for the Schools Development Authority’s capital plan.

Land was cleared and cleaned up nearby, architects were put to work, and Fernandez guessed the first shovel would be in the ground soon after. A newspaper clip still hangs in the hall of former Gov. Jon Corzine visiting the school in 2008 to announce the progress.

But that never happened as funding for the SDA slowed, and then Corzine lost the election to Gov. Chris Christie. Now the SDA under Christie’s appointed executive director, Marc Larkins, is reviewing the whole capital plan of 52 projects.

So when Larkins visited School 20, that didn’t go well with the two or three dozen people gathered in the basement, a long and squat space of columns and red tape to demark its multiple functions.

Uneasy Coexistence

Fletcher Walker, head of the PTO and father of a first grader, straddled the red line. “This is the gym over here, and the lunchroom over there,” he said, his cane pointing to each. “They coexist, when in fact they are neither.”

Larkins wasn’t saying the new construction wouldn’t happen, but he was adamant that the state just can’t afford projects like it once did.

“I don’t know what was designed before I got here,” said Larkins, in his fourth month on the job.” But I have to tell you, the way things are going, there is no way we can sustain ourselves.

“We can’t build $75 million elementary schools and $100 million high schools and not run out of money,” he said.

Actually, the pricetag on the new School 20 is about $55 million for 90,000 square feet of space. Yet afterward, Larkins said even $55 million is hard to fathom when money is so scarce and needs are so great in urban districts across the state.

That’s what Fernandez said bothered him most, that this was an urban problem.

“This isn’t a coincidence,” he said. “This doesn’t happen in Princeton or Fort Lee.”

Still, Fernandez has learned to make do as the wait continues. The school has bought 12 Smartboards for the classrooms, a modern touch to rooms that still have what look like the original windows.

The Library in the Corner

He has carved four rooms out of the auditorium, including a library in one corner, the social worker’s office in another, and the occupational therapist behind a row of metal cabinets.

There is less he can do to adapt to the fact there is only one student bathroom, all in the way back down in the basement. And that in itself looks its full 101 years, with tiles chipped and cracking.

Still, Fernandez holds some nostalgia for the old building. He points out the copper detail on the outside, the old tin ceilings inside, and the two Italian reliefs in the stairwell.

And when the school does move —he thinks at best he’ll have to come back to visit at that point—he does wish it could retain some of that old-world charm.

“The stained glass, I asked the SDA if we could take it to the new building.” he said. “Not going to happen.”