In a process that begins almost as soon as the summer recess begins in June, many area schools use the break to set up for the coming year.
The Reporter recently visited two area public high schools, Memorial High School in West New York and Union Hill in Union City and witnessed firsthand the work that has been done over the summer.
Some of the work was physical, such as at Memorial, and some of it has more to do with scheduling and training incoming teachers.
Memorial High School Principal Matt Sinisi has had a busy summer. Sure, he took a vacation and spent time with his family, but Sinisi has had one eye on his school (called by many "The Grand Old Lady") the whole time. Memorial High School has undergone major renovations over the summer months. In a project that actually began before the end of the 2002-2003 school year, Memorial had every single window replaced and got a new roof. And for a building the size of Memorial, the project was one of epic proportion.
In what Sinisi called a "general refurbishment," the school also had all of its exterior steps replaced. Said Sinisi in a recent office interview, "The grand old lady has gotten a facelift."
Memorial High School was built in 1927, and its imposing edifice has seen many thousands of students come and go. According to Sinisi, other than some minor upkeep over the years (during construction of a side building in 1962 and an annex building in the mid-1970s), the building hasn't had a facelift for over 40 years.
According to Sinisi, during the summer, there were over 100 workers in the school every day. Said Sinisi, "It was really tough. There was no air conditioning in the school. They worked really hard. And our custodial and secretarial staff were amazing. They really put out such an effort. They worked their hardest to make sure the school was ready."
Sinisi has a unique and long-term view of the school. He graduated from Memorial, taught at the school, acted as an administrator and finally was a principal. This year begins Sinisi's 35th year at the school and his fourth as principal.
Said Sinisi, "One thing about MHS is that we have many teachers who are former graduates. It's a nice place to come back to."
West New York Mayor Albio Sires also is a graduate of Memorial.
Sinisi is especially proud of this coming year, as it marks the end of his first four year freshman-to-senior cycle. Many of the kids that he welcomed as a freshman principal four years ago will be graduating this year.
Said Sinisi, "You watch them come in as freshman. They're in they're first high school assembly and they're looking up at you with these big bright eyes. You watch them grow and you watch them mature. We really carry them through these four years. We act as surrogate parents to a lot of these kids. It means a lot to see them through. I told this year's seniors that come June, you and I will both be graduating."
During last week's visit, the building was a hive of activity. Folks of all sorts buzzed around in eager anticipation of the coming school year. Students were registering for classes, janitorial staffers were putting the finishing touches on the recently polished floors, and office staffers were busy coordinating schedules. Some teachers were in their classrooms, getting the feel back after a long summer off.
Science teacher Maria Kocialski, a 12-year Memorial veteran, admitted to feeling "anxious anticipation but no butterflies." Said Kocialski, "I've been at this too long to have butterflies."
The butterflies are left to Principal Sinisi, who said, "I'm always ready for the game, but I still have butterflies. I do get nervous. I know I won't sleep tonight. There are certain things you can't control, but really, you do everything you can to be prepared and hope for the best."
Audio/visual teacher Doug Neralich, who was returning for his 36th year at Memorial, still finds a certain giddiness about the first day of school. "The same excitement is still there," said Neralich last week. "I don't have the butterflies that I used to, but I really do look forward to the start of the school year."
Incoming Freshman Jose Adames, 14, shares Neralich's excitement. Said Adames, "I want to have fun during the four years. I know it's going to be hard, but I can't wait. I'm really excited."
Union Hill High School in Union City isn't boasting a new roof or new windows, but it does boast one excited principal.
Principal David Wilcommes is beginning his second year as principal of Union Hill High School, and like his colleague Matt Sinisi in West New York, is a lifer. Wilcommes has been at Union Hill as a teacher, administrator and principal for a combined 32 years. And he still loves coming in everyday.
Said Wilcommes in a recent interview, "Sure, there are days that I'm like 'I'm out of here', but I really love it here. It's a great school."
Union Hill, like the city it resides in, has its problems (overcrowding for one) but according to Wilcommes, "We do everything we can to make sure the students have everything they need. Mayor Stack and Mr. Sanger (newly-appointed Union City superintendent of schools) are very supportive. They give us everything we need."
According to Wilcommes, the biggest infrastructure development is the creation of a new career center on Palisade Avenue near the school. The career center will be open to Union Hill students and will offer career counseling and guidance. Said Wilcommes, "Over the summer, we've had to rework the students schedules to accommodate the career center. That's been a big change from years past."
As far as maintenance is concerned, Wilcommes said that the normal painting and upkeep issues have been taken care of. Said Wilcommes glibly, "You have no idea what nine months of high school students can do to a school. It's all normal wear and tear but it has to be tackled. Every year, we do new projects. Somehow, it all comes together."
Unfortunately, the resolve of Union Hill's student body and administration has been tested within the last year. Early last year, A Union Hill student, Ranier Valdes, was hit by a car in Hoboken and suffered severe leg injuries. At the time, no one was sure what Valdes' prognosis would be, but in the ensuing year, Valdes has made much progress and Wilcommes was happy to announce that Valdes will be returning to Union Hill.
After the accident, the outpouring of support for Valdes from students and teachers alike was overwhelming. Said Wilcommes, "I think that really showed what kind of school we have and what kind of people we have here."
It remains to be seen what effect the recent death of a Union Hill student, Jose Ives, will have on the students of Union Hill. Ives, who would have been a junior at Union Hill this year, died days after getting into a scuffle with a Weehawken police officer, Alejandro Jarimillo. The officer was charged with murder and the case is still under investigation.
Said Wilcommes, "We will talk about it the first day and let the students know that there will be counselors that they can talk to if they feel they need to. We have a great support services network in place."