“We are trying to have a school our kids can safely walk to, just like any other neighborhood,” said Annie Lee, organizer of the group School Movement on the Hudson.
Lee lives in Jacob’s Ferry in West New York, one of numerous upscale communities along the waterfront stretching from Weehawken to North Bergen and beyond. Public school students in Lee’s area are currently bused up the hill to local facilities, or sent to neighboring towns or private schools.
“Very few parents send them up on the hill,” said Lee. “It’s considered a dangerous route. They can’t walk safely. A lot of them actually send their children to neighboring towns. I believe there is a charge if you send them to other towns. And then a lot of them go to private schools in Hoboken, Jersey City, Englewood.”
School Movement on the Hudson was established to lobby for a school to serve the waterfront communities. “We are embracing any type of school movement, whether it is public, charter, or private,” said Lee. “I don’t want to put my 5-year-old on a bus for an hour fighting either George Washington traffic or Lincoln Tunnel traffic to go to or come home from school.”
Countdown to kindergarten
According to Lee, new parents along the waterfront feel a “countdown” when their children begin approaching school age. They must weigh the available options for schooling, and many elect to move away rather than choose from what they perceive as unacceptable alternatives.
“I now have a 15-month old,” said Lee. “And I’m thinking, why do all my neighbors move when the kids turn five? I don’t want to move. I’ve been here for 14 years. This is a perfect neighborhood for us to commute and to live.”
So Lee reached out to the members of a local moms’ group in West New York and Guttenberg.
“I sent an e-mail to everybody: Does anybody have any concerns about school? How are you sending your kids there? Is there anybody trying to make a school? Can I help? Within a matter of a week I had 100 e-mails back. And we got together in March and said let’s see if there’s anything we can do.”
“I’ve seen so many close friends leave as soon as their kids reach the age of kindergarten.” –Henry Song
“We approached the [West New York] municipality to try and do something,” he continued, “but mostly there’s been no response. So we decided to take matters into our own hands.”
That meant doing their own research into the possibility of creating a new school on the waterfront.
“In the end of the day, this is for all these towns,” said Leung. “Because if we get a school down here, whether it be public, private, or charter, everyone down here is involved.”
“We’re not yet sure how these things work,” said Lee. “If it’s a private school I guess we need to attract a private investor or organization who would possibly want to build a school here and fund a lot of it so that kids can attend. If it’s a charter school then we need to apply to the state to get a charter school approved. If it’s a public school then we need to know how to go about it. What kind of requirements does the state have to put up a new school, if there’s a minimum population, if there’s any maximum or minimum income, whatever that is, we need to learn.”
Most charter schools accept kids primarily from the district in which they are situated. It’s not clear yet which town would host a new school.
To get started, the group began collecting funds, starting with a silent auction on Sunday, Aug. 17 at a community barbecue in Jacob’s Ferry. All the items were donated by community members, raising $3,500 for the group and spreading awareness of their cause throughout the area.
“The goal of these funds is first off to get expert analysis consultants to guide us through the process of making a school,” said Leung. “It’s going to take more than just moms and dads in the community doing this in our spare time.”
Recognizing that real estate along the waterfront is premium property, they plan to reach out to Roseland, the primary developer in the region, for their input on a viable location. “We’re also reaching out to Arthur Imperatore and seeing whether he can provide some insight or guidance since he’s been crucial and critical to the development of everyone here,” said Leung. “We’re very much looking forward to meeting him to discuss the possibility of having a school for his legacy.”
Board of Education candidates
“We no longer feel that we can just make a phone call and pray and hope to God that [the West New York administration] will respond,” said Leung. “So we’re putting up candidates to run for the Board of Education. This is maybe a stroke of luck, but for the first time ever, West New York’s Board of Ed is up for election [in November]. And we feel with their $100 million plus budget something has to be done not just for our community but for the education system in the entire township. It’s ludicrous how poor the schooling is and I’m sure everyone feels that way, regardless of where they live, whether down here or up there.”
The school board in West New York has nine members, each serving two or three year terms. Leung is running for one of four seats that will be up for election this November. Joining him from the School Movement are Monica Parra, Anna Cerqueira, and Henry Song.
Song, a resident of Grandview in West New York since 2007 and a real estate agent at Hudson Club, began soliciting candidates to run for the board months ago. When he encountered the School Movement, he knew he had found like-minded souls.
“I’ve seen so many close friends leave as soon as their kids reach the age of kindergarten,” he said. “They’ve moved on into Bergen County, into different school districts, they’ve been sending their children to private preschools and things of that nature. A lot of them held out for as long as they could and just felt as though, because the education system here in West New York is average at best, they just wanted to put their children into a better system.”
With a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old, Song is experiencing the countdown. “I don’t want to put them into private school. I want to put them in public elementary schools,” he said. “I don’t think that the public school system in West New York is terrible. But I also don’t think it’s great. And I think everybody shares the views and I think it’s fairly well known. But we also see that the Board of Education in this town, it’s an absolute farce. There are some members who have done some good, but there are other members who have no business being on a Board of Education. It’s terrible. It’s cronyism at its worst.”
Regarding the School Movement, he said, “We realized if we had any chance of actually having a charter school open, first of all we would have to have it approved by the Board of Education. And by having a puppet board controlled by the administration, this wouldn’t work. Secondly, we don’t want to just have a charter school for the waterfront and see the rest of the town go down. That just doesn’t make sense. We would like to have a charter school but we’d like to fix the education system in general. It would make a lot more sense to do it concurrently, to have everything get bolstered up. To see the entire system get repaired.”
“We need members of the Board of Education that really care about the education of the children, have no political affiliations, have no aspirations to be politicians, and have no incentive in doing this other than the welfare of the children of this town,” he concluded.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.