On a Thursday morning in late March, Hoboken Catholic is hopping. A couple of kids come into the office for their late passes, but most of the school is settling in for the 8:20 bell. Principal Matthew McGrath is on hand for the grand tour, which starts in his office.
One of his most prized possessions? A Mets shirt with number 41, worn by hall-of-fame hurler Tom Seaver. McGrath wears it on dress-down days.
As we walk around, he calls kids by their names and tousles their hair.
In Mrs. Pat Peterson’s first-grade class, students look spiffy in their school uniforms. No one’s shy in this class. They eagerly show Victor things they’ve made and are quick to reveal their career goals. Not one, but two students want to be paleontologists. Let’s go, fossils!
In Mr. John Taormina’s science lab, seventh graders are creating a PowerPoint presentation on biomes. Also on display is a “flexible spine,” fashioned from pipe cleaners, macaroni, and gummy lifesavers.
Going from one extreme to the other, next stop is Mrs. Eileen Foley’s adorable pre-K class. It’s really busy and noisy with toys galore, the kids wearing little maroon sweat suits. This is their playtime before they hit the serious academic stuff, like religion and circle time.
“Play is an important part of learning,” McGrath says. “We have really happy kids.”
In Ms. Maria Fusiak’s eighth-grade reading class, some of the students are wearing sweatshirts with the names of the high schools they will soon be attending, including Academy of the Holy Angels in Demarest, St. Dominic’s in Jersey City, St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, and High Tech High in North Bergen.
Mr. Bert Ammerman, part-time assistant principal who’s sitting in on the class, says of the school, “It’s top-notch. I’m impressed with the commitment and dedication of the teachers and students.”
The gym is brand new, the result of a major renovation after Superstorm Sandy. Mr. T, aka Mr. Michael Tallarida, has lined up a bunch of little maroon-clad kids for a phys-ed class. The gym also serves as an auditorium and theater. On the stage behind a curtain, moms are preparing for an upcoming Easter Egg hunt.
The school holds four fundraisers a year: Texas hold’em poker in January, spring gala, 5-k race in June, and golf outing in the fall.
On the way out of the gym, we stop by the cafeteria where Chef Fred, a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, is preparing chicken parm for lunch. While we’re in the kitchen, Miss Aggie stops by. She’s such an institution as a kitchen worker and crossing guard that a street outside the school was named for her: Aggie’s Way.
When in Rome…
Signs of the school’s Roman Catholic foundation are all over the building, with statues of Jesus and saints, a cutout of Pope Francis, and crucifixes on high. At one time, there were six Catholic elementary schools in the Hoboken-Weehawken area. Soon they began to consolidate, and finally Hoboken Catholic Academy was the only remaining Catholic school.
The reason? This is the scenario laid out by McGrath. “Over time,” he says, “through demographic changes and smaller families, different things happened throughout New Jersey,” leading to the closing of many Catholic schools.
The school, at 555 Seventh St., is affiliated with St. Ann’s, St. Francis, and St. Laurence Churches and serves 340 students from pre-K to eighth grade.
In his quarter century as an educator, McGrath has been both a teacher and administrator, working in public and private schools. A Jersey City native, he’s a product of Catholic schools, graduating from Hudson Catholic and what is now St. Peter’s University.
McGrath is in his fourth year as principal. He started his tenure at Hoboken Catholic a year after Superstorm Sandy devastated the west side of Hoboken. Its fury wreaked havoc on the school when 4,000 gallons of heating oil from an abandoned tank flooded the building, shutting it for the balance of the school year. You can still see the watermarks about two feet off the floor on some doors and walls.
Though Catholic schools are suffering from societal shifts that are hurting them financially, there is still a powerful emotional pull toward the Catholic school experience.
“It’s a combination of things,” McGrath says. “One is a strong religious component. Children are taught in a religion class every day from the time they enter. They attend masses and different prayer services. Prayer is a big part of every day.”
Students also complete a number of service projects through the campus ministry, student council, and honor society. They “give back and do things for people who are less fortunate,” McGrath says.
Hitting the Books
Academically, the school is aligned with the Archdiocese of Newark. “We have all their curricular requirements and strong technology with smart boards in every room.” In the works are iPads for middle-school students.
The school also provides a professional development program for teachers offered by professors from William Patterson University. And engineering students from Stevens offer a six-week class for middle-school students.
The majority of students come from Hoboken, Jersey City, Union City, and Weehawken, where active Catholic parishes feed enrollment.
“Our goal is to provide the best education we can to prepare our students academically, emotionally, and spiritually to move on to high school as confident and well-prepared young adults,” McGrath says.
The Catholic high schools that they attend include Xavier in New York City, St. Dominic Academy in Jersey City, Hudson Catholic in Jersey City, and St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City. In 2016 and 2017, more than $300,000 in scholarships were awarded each of those years. Public schools include McNair Academic in Jersey City and High Tech High School in North Bergen.
“I’m happy with our students’ efforts,” McGrath says, “and our teachers have done a terrific job.”
In His DNA
“I’ve always enjoyed working with children,” McGrath says. “I began coaching CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) when I was a teenager. When I realized the impact you can have on young people, I decided to pursue education as a career.”
His tenure at Hoboken Catholic has been rewarding. “You cannot go into a pre-K class and not come out with a smile,” he says. “I have the good fortune to go into all classes and watch kids evolve on a daily basis. As they mature they become more focused. At graduation it’s wonderful to see the finished product emerge.”
Three factors have made it possible.
Says McGrath, “I’ve been blessed with great kids, really outstanding families, and amazing staff and teachers.”—Kate Rounds