Secaucus High School (SHS) will see a change of the guard on Tuesday – the second in as many years – when outgoing Principal Deidre Ertle retires and newly-appointed Principal Robert Berckes takes her place.
For Berckes, the appointment is the realization of his dream to return to the Secaucus Public School District as an administrator.
A Secaucus resident known to many people in town for his chiropractic business, Berckes was among three finalists selected out of a pool of 127 applicants who were considered for two principal vacancies in the school district.
In addition to Berckes, the Board of Education also recently appointed Robert Daniello as principal of Secaucus Middle School.
In a vote taken Sept. 7, Berckes received the support of seven of the board’s nine trustees. One board trustee, Charles Krajewski III, did not participate in the vote due a family emergency. A second trustee, Michael Makarski, did not vote in his favor.
“I want to see Secaucus High School break the top 100 record.” – Robert Berckes
Trustees who supported Berckes said they were impressed by his breadth of experience and can-do attitude.
“He gave a great interview, by far the best interview of the three [candidates] we interviewed,” said one trustee.
In a comment issued through her spokesman, Schools Superintendent Cynthia Randina said, “Any superintendent given the opportunity to hire a school principal realizes that the primary goal is to find someone who has an inherent understanding that they must, along with their staff, prepare each student to reach his or her full potential. Parents expect that their child, upon graduation, will be prepared to move onto a college of their choice or enter a global workforce… This challenging, yet rewarding task requires a leader who understands that a young person needs rigorous academic preparation, along with social and emotional maturity. I am extremely confident that Dr. Berckes [possesses] the academic background, experience, people skills, and knowledge of our local culture to make our community proud of [Secaucus High School].
‘We can do it’
Berckes began his career as a phys ed teacher at Immaculate Conception School in Secaucus in 1975, and worked there for seven years before accepting a position at St. Mary’s High School in East Rutherford. There, Berckes – who holds New Jersey certification for K-12 biological sciences – taught biology and chemistry before becoming dean of students and, later, principal.
In an interview last week, he said that returning to the Secaucus School District had always been a goal of his.
“I always wanted to return to my role as an administrator, particularly in my home town, and the reputation our schools have was inviting. The school district has one of the best superintendents around. I say this from my experience with teaching over 30 years,” Berckes said, referring to Randina. “What we have available in our schools, and the training that is made possible, allows our staff to be best equipped to make our students better problem solvers, critical thinkers, and successful people in our 21st Century.”
Among his goals as principal of SHS, he said, was to improve the school’s state ranking. New Jersey Monthly recently ranked SHS 102nd out of 322 high schools overall. Two years ago the school came in at 103rd. Within its district factor group, which compares similar schools to one another, Secaucus High placed fourth out of 10 schools ranked.
“I want to see Secaucus High School break the top 100 record,” Berckes commented. “I taught in Tenafly and they are number 3 and I taught in Wayne Hills which is 50. Bergenfield went up almost 100 places. We can do it. These teachers and students are geared up for academic success. We don’t need any negativity or pessimistic attitudes.”
Calling the SHS staff “high spirited, cooperative, [and] supportive,” he said the school can achieve his vision of academic excellence through teamwork and accountability.
Specifically, Berckes said he would like to make use of “digital classrooms, virtual classrooms, [and offer courses through] the International Baccalaureate program.” In addition, he’d like to see the high school develop educational partnerships with Syracuse University and High Tech High School in North Bergen. These partnerships, he said, would allow interested students to take courses at these schools and, in the case of Syracuse, receive college credit.
Similarly, the International Baccalaureate program, set up through Geneva, Switzerland, is a college-level curriculum created by educators from around the world. Schools must get approved to offer the curriculum – taught by specially trained teachers – and can then offer it to their students, who, again, can receive college credit.
Digital classrooms allow students to enter class work into a computer program that allows teachers to quickly assess whether they’ve absorbed the material. Virtual classrooms are classes and labs offered online.
A strict disciplinarian, enforcement of the uniform dress code is an area Berckes said he’d like to improve upon at the high school.
“We need to make sure that everyone is on board with implementing all rules and policies that are stated in our handbook with fairness, consistency, and firmness,” he stated. “Those rules are there for everyone’s safety, provide structure of equality, and prevent chaos.”
(A former Secaucus resident who sent her daughter to St. Mary’s during Berckes’ tenure there said the former principal was known to occasionally line up the students to inspect their adherence to the dress code.)
Calling his management style “no nonsense,” Berckes said he will have an “open door policy” as principal, and likes to “lead by example.”
Berckes steps into his new post at a difficult time for school districts generally, and this one in particular. The district, like all school districts in New Jersey, is facing unprecedented challenges.
In March, Trenton stripped the Secaucus School District of $1.6 million in annual state aid, a move that forced the Board of Education and Randina’s administration to tap into an $800,000 reserve that had been saved up. The district was also forced to trim $2.9 million from its budget just weeks before the April school elections.
Voters approved a $32.1 million budget for the district, a budget that included a 2.5 percent tax increase. Locally, voters have traditionally supported the school budget. But statewide a record number of school budgets were rejected by voters this year, a trend that could spread across the Garden State until the economy improves.
The district is facing local challenges as well.
As Secaucus has experienced a growth in its population, overcrowding has already become a concern for the elementary schools, and is a looming one for the high school.
The district has also undergone many changes since Randina’s appointment as schools superintendent in 2008 – changes that have been embraced in some quarters, resisted in others. The Secaucus Education Association (SEA), the local teachers’ union, has opposed personnel shifts and new teaching tools that have been introduced to the classroom. The SEA, whose current contract expires next year, has said that morale throughout the district is a problem and took a vote of no confidence in Randina in June.
When repeatedly questioned on what he sees as the district’s most pressing challenges, and how he might help the district address them in his new role, Berckes said, “The funding cuts are a challenge because you still want to be able to offer what you can to the students. Thank God the budget was passed that allowed us to do that. We will always need the support of our voters to pass the budget so our resources are always there. If we had more money from the state level, we could even offer more.”
He declined to discuss other timely issues facing school districts in general and the Secaucus school district in particular.
‘Believe in our vision’
Berckes ran as an Independent for a 3rd Ward Town Council seat with the Take Back Secaucus slate in 2006. He lost that race and hasn’t run for council since.
His only involvement with the council was in December 2008 when he approached the governing body to demand that municipal “Happy Holidays” signs be replaced with ones reading “Merry Christmas.”
Education, he said, is now his primary focus.
When asked if he’ll continue his chiropractic business once he takes on the demanding position of SHS principal, Berckes said, “I don’t think that’s appropriate for this article. I’m a full time educator, part-time chiropractor.”
He insists he’s ready to fully embrace his new role.
“This is a new year, clean slate, and a new beginning to make things right,” he said. “We need everyone on board to believe in our vision.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.