Just about any school will tout academic excellence, but there’s one Jersey City school that adds a crucial element in the all-important mission of preparing students for adulthood.
In late January 2011, the Rev. Francis Schiller, pastor of St. Patrick & Assumption/All Saints Church on Bramhall Avenue, filed an application with the state to launch the Dr. Lena Edwards Academic Charter School.
The school, which takes children from kindergarten through eighth grade, specializes in building character and instilling values.
The focus was inspired by its namesake, Lena Edwards, a Jersey City physician, humanitarian, and philanthropist who was born in 1900 and died in 1986.
The school, which serves about 350 students and has about 23 faculty members, is on Bramhall Avenue between Grand and Clerk streets. It took over what was once St. Patrick’s School. “It’s in the heart of an urban community in the Bergen-Lafayette section,” said CEO Christopher Garlin at the time.
The school emphasizes “character-based education with five key value areas,” he said. Those areas are compassion, diligence, integrity, respect, and responsibility.
“Those are the pillars of the school,” he said. “It’s a classic educational mode with a focus on cultural literacy.”
The school is intimately tied to the neighborhood.
“We see this school as being the center of the community, a resource for children and parents and the community at large,” Garlin said. “Not in isolation but an extension that strengthens the neighborhood that surrounds the school.”
But the school also has a broad mandate.
“The goal is for kids to be able to reason, think, analyze, and have a broad worldview,” Garlin said. “They have to be strong stewards who understand that they are integrally tied to the community, the country, and the world.”
Director of Development Pat West weighed in at the end of the 2016 school year. “The school was the result of a community cry for education in inner-city neighborhoods,” she said. “It was built with character education running parallel to academic education. All are part of the five pillars.”
The school’s namesake, she said, “embodies what we wanted.”
The Edwards Legacy
It would be hard to find a more stellar model for students in our inner-city neighborhoods than the one for whom the school is named.
Dr. Lena Edwards was valedictorian of her 1917 class at Dunbar High in Washington, D.C. She completed her Bachelor’s Degree in three years at Howard University and in 1924 graduated from the Howard University College of Medicine.
Shortly thereafter she opened an OBGYN practice in the Bergen-Lafayette section of Jersey City. In 1945, while practicing at the Jersey City Medical Center, she became one of the first African-American Board Certified women OBGYNs in the U.S.
In three decades of service, she delivered some 5,000 babies, while raising six children of her own. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson bestowed on Dr. Edwards the Medal of Freedom.
In her later years, she returned to a medical practice in Jersey City, working with her daughter, Dr. Marie Metoyer.
I caught up with Director of Development Pat West at a busy time for any school. It was late June. The kids were set to be sprung for summer vacation in about a week, and there were lots of graduation ceremonies and other events on tap. The eighth grade was graduating on a Wednesday and kindergarten on a Thursday.
The Jersey City Rotary Club was scheduled for a visit to announce a donation of books to the school.
And Planting Day was also on the agenda. “We are landscaping more of the property,” West said.
Sustainable Jersey for Schools announced on Jan. 8 that the school had been awarded a $2,000 capacity building grant. The organization is a nonprofit that provides tools and resources to New Jersey schools that want to conserve resources and be environmentally friendly. The grant is intended to assist school green teams in their sustainability activities.
“Our partnership with Sustainable Jersey for Schools helps us to envision a healthy and abundant, equitable and safe, resilient and ecologically diverse world, connected through a global community acting as a transformational hub of our community,” CEO Garlin said at the time.
The grants are funded by the New Jersey Education Association, which has partnered with Sustainable Jersey to provide $180,000 to qualifying schools.
“The garden provides an education in sustainability,” West said. “Students learn how to garden and bring food to the plate.” It’s all part of the school’s character-based education. “They learn math and health and wellness,” she said. “It helps children bring the concept of character-building through diligence.”
Lettuce, kale, and carrots were among the “fruits” of their labor.
Art is Part of the Picture
Students’ well-rounded education includes dance, theater, and other arts. The Jacques d’Amboise Theatre, an historic landmark, is the jewel in the school’s crown. In 1993, a New Jersey Historic Trust grant preserved the 684-seat jewel-box playhouse.
Architect Thomas P. McGinty and the New York architectural firm of Beyer Blinder Belle oversaw the restoration. Like many opera houses of the era, it features an orchestra pit, mezzanine, and balcony seating. It’s often compared to the Shubert Theater on Broadway, though it’s one-third the size.
In 1999 it was dedicated to Jacques d’Amboise, a former principal with the New York City Ballet and founder of the National Dance Institute at St. Patrick’s.—Kate Rounds