In Paterson, Rethinking the Concept of What Makes a High School

Joanna Gagis, Correspondent | January 22, 2020 | Education
A federally funded program offers students a range of support services outside the ordinary

They’re called barriers to education — things beyond the traditional purview of school officials that nevertheless are big obstacles to the learning process, especially in high-poverty communities like Paterson.

“Imagine being a 15-year-old,” said Manny Martinez, vice president of the Board of Education in the historic city that’s bisected by the Passaic River. “Now you sit in the classroom and the teacher’s expecting you to perform. Maybe you didn’t sleep well the night before, maybe you didn’t have the opportunity to make sure their uniform was freshly laundered, maybe didn’t eat well that morning.”

In Paterson, officials are tackling the problem by expanding a federally funded program that has shown some success among younger pupils, to its John F. Kennedy High School. It offers students a host of support services, ranging from tutoring and other forms of academic support to health services. Also on the menu is help for basic needs — like a discreetly placed laundry room, open during non-school hours, on the theory that not having clean clothes can lead to chronic absenteeism.

“Kids especially, they find it embarrassing,” said Iffat Aniqa, a junior at the school, which sits just blocks away from Paterson’s iconic Great Falls. “They don’t want to go ask for help and look like they’re struggling. Because it’s during those times, they don’t have to worry about kids seeing them.”

In 2018, the city was one of 15 school systems in the country to win grants of just under $500,000 from the federal Full-Service Community Schools program — in each case, the first in an expected five-year series of allocations totaling as much as $2.5 million. The program, funded under the Obama-era Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, is designed to foster “full-service community schools that improve the coordination, integration, accessibility, and effectiveness of services for children and families, particularly for children attending high-poverty schools, including high-poverty rural schools,” according to the federal Department of Education.

Services for families too

Paterson had first won Community Schools funding in 2010 and then again in 2015, which it used to establish support programs at five elementary schools. The program at JFK — which will split the new grant with a sixth elementary school in the city — is the first to be established at a secondary school in New Jersey.

District officials say they have just recently gotten all elements of the JFK program up and running: “from getting their clothes laundered here, to a hygiene closet, to getting their academics met, to getting fed breakfast, lunch and dinner right here in the school,” Paterson Schools Superintendent Eileen Shafer said. “And to provide not only these services to the children, but also to their families.”

The district has also provided for a community room where basic needs are met, like food, clothing and hygiene products, including menstrual items for girls who often miss school when they can’t afford them. There are also medical services available, both for students and their families.

There are “physicals, well checkups, sick visits,” said Denise Hajjar, health and wellness services administrator for the program. “Our eye doctor also comes in here and does eye exams. Our dentist comes in. So we give wraparound services in a very timely fashion so that we can hopefully keep the children in school, because when they’re in school, they’re learning.”

And when it all gets to be too much, students can escape to the living room, a space to relax or seek mental health services like art therapy and guided meditation. There are also support groups for the LGBTQ community, as well as for those who’ve experienced relationship issues or trauma.

Children ‘with adult problems’

“Our children come to school with adult problems and will tell you nobody cares about them,” Shafer said. “Once a child knows you care about them and really believes in it and it’s for real, they’ll talk to you and tell you just about anything. And then they’ll be able to go to class and be able to learn.”

Students say the support is welcome.

“You might have academics on your mind, make it into college. Family problems are always there. Whether it’s social or emotional, you carry it with you everywhere, including school,” said Noor Hassan. “Support is something that everyone should have available to them, no matter who it is.”

U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell said, that while the program is geared toward boosting education outcomes, that’s not the only goal.

“We will bring our scores up, but they’re not the end-all,” said the Democrat who once served as Paterson’s mayor. “We want people to graduate from this high school that have character and are willing to come to the assistance of their neighbor.”