While he was serving as the assistant superintendent of schools in East Orange a decade ago, Dr. Robert Penna helped start an educational program called SAGE, which stood for Scholars for Academic Guidance and Education.
The program was established to provide specialized tutoring for students in need of extra assistance in language arts and mathematics in grades four through eight.
It was geared toward students who perhaps came from homes with non-English speaking parents, or students from families who moved to different districts and did not have the opportunity to advance like the ones who remained.
The SAGE program also provided an opportunity for retired teachers, who had extensive background experience, to continue teaching on a limited basis. The tutors worked with either one or two students at a time for 40-minute sessions during the course of the school day, in whatever area the student needs the most help.
Penna saw such positive results with the SAGE program in East Orange that he was determined to have it installed in the Guttenberg school system when he became the new superintendent of Guttenberg's schools last year.
"It was very successful in East Orange and it was one of the things that I implemented right away when I came here," Penna said. "Of course, anything that is new of this nature meets some concerns, but once I explained the rational and potential benefits of the program, I was able to get more people who believed in the concept with me."
Added Penna, "We had to target the individual needs of each student, the ones that needed the most instruction in certain areas. The program worked wonders in East Orange and I knew it would here."
The first year of the SAGE program proved to be worthwhile in Guttenberg's lone grade school, Anna L. Klein School. So much so that the fourth and eighth grade students who took the Elementary School Proficiency Assessment (ESPA, for fourth grade students) and the Grade Eight Proficiency Assessment (GEPA) saw the average test scores increase by 10-15 percentage points.
Not only has SAGE become a part of the district's fabric, but it has also been presented with an award from the New Jersey Association of School Administrators.
Penna received the award on behalf of the school on Friday, Nov. 16 at the New Jersey Education Association Convention in Atlantic City. Penna also made a presentation about the SAGE program at the convention. The school also was presented a meritorious achievement award from the NJASA for its work in developing a school calendar/handbook.
"Receiving two statewide awards is quite an achievement for Guttenberg," Penna said. "Without question, the program is receiving interest to be used in other districts. After speaking, I was approached by representatives of three or four districts, as well as an education professor from Rutgers who was looking at the SAGE program as part of development for other schools."
Added Penna, "It does feel good when you are recognized by your peers. I know that the program has made a difference for a lot of children. I know the program works. Receiving two honors in one year is more than anyone could have expected. There have been many changes in education and I'm glad that we can be recognized for those changes."
Early childhood news
In other Guttenberg school news, Penna said that the construction of Klein School's new classrooms for the Early Childhood program are back in full gear, and the two classrooms for the 4-year-old students should be completed "within the next few weeks."
"But I'm an optimist," Penna said. "The construction company has not given me a strict deadline, but the work is being done and I feel better about the project now than I did a few weeks ago. Progress is being made. It was good to see work being done."
The students have been attending classes temporarily at the Guttenberg Community Center, but Penna wants to get the students inside Klein School as soon as possible.
"I'd rather have my children in my building, because we can offer so many services here," Penna said. "I'm grateful to the town for allowing us to use the Community Center, but we have to get those children back where they belong."