School Climate & Safety

Work in Progress

By Alan Richard — June 21, 2000 12 min read

On his first trip here, architect Roy Strickland expected to see nothing more than squatting warehouses and abandoned brick factories, relics of a bygone heyday.

After all, Paterson was a city fallen on hard times, whose schools were so forlorn that the district was one of the first in the nation to be stripped of its powers in a state takeover. It wouldn’t be much to see.

Paterson, N.J., mistaken for Florence, Italy?

Then, just a few minutes after crossing over the Hudson River from New York City, the MIT professor began to believe that this might be the place.

“The trees broke, and there was this series of church spires and domes that made me think of Florence,” he says. Not many people would compare New Jersey urban blight to the Renaissance wonders of the Italian city, but “that was my first impression—this was like an American Florence.”

What he encountered that day represented more than just some fine examples of architecture in the midst of the inner city. For Strickland, this was a place where his theories and dreams might finally be realized.

Paterson, more than any other place he had seen, offered the chance to transform the ornate, mostly vacant buildings at the heart of a downtrodden business district into public schools. The architect calls the plan “The City of Learning,” a place where a downtown is reborn through students and educators.

The former St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Paterson is now a public school. City officials plan to convert the parking lot in front of the school into a city plaza or square. The school’s choir, below, practices inside the former church.
—Emile Wamsteker

As luck would have it, Strickland’s ideas fit perfectly with Paterson Superintendent Edwin Duroy’s plans to create small learning academies throughout the city, each focused on a different career or field of interest.

Strickland, an expert in school design, was hired as a consultant by the school district in 1998 to help Paterson find sites for new schools—no easy task in an urban area. The partnership evolved as the professor and the superintendent realized that a marriage of their ideas could work to help revive the city’s schools and the city itself.

People who have called these parts home for their entire lives have noticed old buildings for the first time, and they have realized that their much-maligned city has the potential to shine.

“Roy really showed us how to see this city differently,” says Stephen Cohen, who directs one of the new downtown schools in a once-vacant building. “It’s sort of like a very subtle revolution.”

Learning To Fly

Inside the sanctuary of the old St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Merry Naddeo-Siss spreads her arms wide, and children begin to sing—60 of them, all clad in white shirts, gray sweater vests, and navy-blue pants. “You taught me well, you gave me strength,” the young voices begin.

The old church isn’t a church anymore; it’s a public school.

The children attend the Academy of Fine Arts, one of several small schools that have opened in downtown Paterson.

The students don’t realize it, but they may be a key to realizing the vision of Strickland and civic leaders here to make the city a better place to live, work, and learn.

Naddeo-Siss and dance teacher Alyson Loughran founded the school after the superintendent asked teachers for ideas on how the new, smaller schools should be designed and operated. The women opened their academy last fall, enrolling students interested in music, dance, and other arts.

Strickland believes that success in converting Paterson’s buildings to schools could become a new national model for how schools are designed.

Naddeo-Siss, a former music teacher, feels at home here among the high ceilings and old Sunday school rooms. “I’m a church musician,” she says. “I had my first organ job at age 12.”

Students practice under sunlight filtered through a stained-glass window, an image of Christ watching over them in shades of purple and green. “It’s different,” says 6th grader Lakriesha Thompson, her arm propped on the back of a dark wooden pew. “It makes you feel important.”

The religious artwork, of course, will have to go. Church members will remove the images once the sale of the building to the Paterson public schools is complete.

As a pianist pounds the keys harder, the choir nears the end of its song, and the children begin to stomp. They sway, raising their hands and sing-shout the final verse: “Like an eagle, I will fly!”

Outside the front doors of the sanctuary, a parking lot stretches across a couple of blocks. It is here where Strickland sees the school and its surroundings coming together. He wants the church building to anchor a new city square.

The parking lot would be replaced with a plaza, trees, and fountains; the whole area would teem with students and with people working in downtown offices and stores.

The temptation is to dismiss such a dream as nothing more than an attractive drawing, one of many such plans that come and go in troubled cities without ever seeing the light of day.

But this is New Jersey, where the state supreme court has ordered the legislature to reverse decades of neglect in poorer districts with big infusions of money to restore and rebuild school buildings. State lawmakers are working on a deal that could pump as much as $12 billion into the 30 districts, including Paterson, included in the long-running Abbott v. Burke school finance lawsuit. (“Support Builds in N.J. for Giant Facilities Plan,” June 14, 2000.)

Paterson, a district of about 24,000 students, has asked for $700 million over the next 10 years, and could possibly receive more.

The money is expected to begin flowing within a year for projects such as the city square, new schools for the downtown, and renovations to existing schools.

Duroy has quietly earned the respect of many district employees by giving teachers a say in shaping the district’s destiny.

Already, with the church’s opening last fall and the start of several other academies in unusual spaces during the past year, Superintendent Duroy has shown he’s serious about doing something special with his buildings and his academic programs.

Empowered by law to overrule the school board, he has convinced many district and city leaders that the City of Learning plan devised by Strickland can work. Already, things are moving.

An academy for international studies and languages has opened inside an old limestone-walled synagogue. There, children skip and play in a physical education room that is actually a ballroom used for Jewish gatherings. Ornate trimming lines the walls, and holiday lights stretch across the ceiling.

Across town, under the thick wooden rafters of an old textile mill and locomotive factory, students with disabilities will learn about careers with the region’s transportation systems. And 60 students interested in teaching careers will attend high school starting in the fall inside an old office building downtown.

Around the corner from the former Lutheran church, two academy-style schools have opened inside a three-story shopping plaza that was almost completely vacant. Storefronts that a year ago were empty rooms now are home to English and math classes, shared by the two schools: One school focuses on medical careers such as nursing, the other on media arts and urban design.

Strickland wants the city square beside the church to be linked with nearby schools by landscaping, colorful banners, and rebuilt sidewalks. A community college just a short walk from the square, past two of the new academies, could be incorporated into the community as well.

Building Up

Paterson is one of many industrial centers that affluent New York residents across the Hudson have no reason to visit. Many of the city’s newer residents came here from other countries, adding Arabic and Eastern European accents to the population made of African-American, Hispanic, and white working-class families.

The state took the unflattering step of taking over the city’s schools in 1991, replacing the superintendent and disbanding the school board.

In making such a drastic move, under New Jersey’s pioneering “academic bankruptcy” law, state officials cited widespread financial mismanagement, an academic crisis, and classes that were too large for much real learning to take place.

Despite some improvement since then, the system has a way to go. Paterson’s test scores still lag behind other districts’, though some schools are making impressive gains. Many of the city’s schools are noticeably dated, many of them about a century old. Class size is still a problem; one principal in an elementary school that is making academic strides says the smallest class has 31 children.

Duroy, a 49-year old former superintendent in nearby Hoboken, is the latest in a series of state-appointed superintendents in Paterson. Rebuilding the district, from the curriculum to the school buildings themselves, requires an approach different from anything this city has ever known, he says.

Duroy adds that he was brought in to the district to focus on traditional schools. But, he says, “that’s not what’s needed to motivate students in the inner cities.”

In his 21/2 years on the job, Duroy has quietly earned the respect of many district employees by giving teachers a say in shaping the district’s destiny. The career academies, now six strong and this fall expanding to nine, were designed and are directed by teachers.

In Strickland’s view, help from the students is a vital part of any attempt to rejuvenate the city.

“He’s throwing education back into the hands of the teachers, and that’s where it belongs,” says Kathi Kellett, a former teacher who now directs a leadership academy at John F. Kennedy High School in the city’s Hillcrest neighborhood. “It’s rejuvenating me.”

Debbie Slota’s idea was to open a restaurant inside a classroom at Kennedy High, and have her students run it. “I worked my dream out on paper, and it became a reality,” she says, adding that several of her students might have dropped out this year if not for the career academy.

Nicholas M. Michelli, the dean of education at Montclair State University in neighboring Upper Montclair, graduated from high school in Paterson and wants to see the district flourish. That’s why his school is helping sponsor the new academy for high school students interested in education careers.

Over a lunch of baked chicken, green peas, and mashed potatoes at the restaurant academy, Michelli says he thinks the Paterson schools are headed in the right direction. “Dr. Duroy has this wonderful idea, to essentially do what charter schools do in some areas,” Michelli says. “This is an urban district on the move. It’s exciting.”

Molding a Model

What’s developing in Paterson began on a smaller scale in nearby Union City, N.J., and other cities including Berkeley, Calif., where Strickland has advised districts on ways to build schools in cramped urban spaces.

Paterson is special for him. It’s a city where schools actually have the space to grow, inside attractive, turn-of-the-century buildings built after a great fire in 1902. “It was not that there was a shortage of space,” Strickland says. “They had too much space, but they just weren’t using it.”

He gushes over the city’s architectural gems: “It really is, as you’ve seen, a very beautiful town.”

There’s the towering City Hall, created by the same men who designed New York’s famous public library on 42nd Street.

An old post office features the striped walls of a Flemish design, its gables and gargoyles visible, its own spire standing guard over what Strickland hopes will become the Paterson city square.

The courthouse has a shining golden dome, and the old police department is solid limestone, with ornate, arched windows. “It’s a stunner,” Strickland says.

As the director of MIT’s New American School Design Project, Strickland believes that success in converting Paterson’s buildings to schools, and improving the economy and appearance of the city, could become a new national model for how schools are designed. Vacant buildings of any type could become homes for schools.

Hopes To Come

On a recent afternoon, Strickland visited Paterson to discuss plans with school leaders, and spent part of his day at a media-arts academy, as he commonly does.

He requires his graduate students at MIT to spend time in Paterson, helping students here build three-dimensional models that will be used to help chart their city’s future.

Jean Riesman, one of the graduate students, is planning to finish her doctorate at the university in Cambridge, Mass., while working full time in the Paterson schools, teaching design.

Her students built models for one of the first renewal projects Paterson may tackle with its new state money: an educational park that would be situated between two public schools in a neighborhood near public housing projects that are being demolished and down the street from a corner frequented by prostitutes.

Paterson Schools 4 and 28, an elementary and middle school, stand a block apart in this neighborhood. Between them is a barren asphalt playground and a vacant lot, near where the demolition of a high-rise public housing complex has begun.

The temptation is to dismiss a dream that is nothing more than an attractive drawing.

One student model for the new park calls for a swimming pool, a skating rink, a food court, a climbing wall, an ice cream shop, a sandbox, and a pond with a fountain and lots of trees.

All of those wishes may not be practical, Strickland says, but the thinking of the local students is helping him and district administrators decide what will be built in this new square.

“It’s fun, and it makes us feel like we’re in charge and helping the community,” says Marilyn Medina, a 15-year-old student who made the model with her classmates LaToya Matthews and Sindy Ponte.

Cohen, who started the media-arts academy and has worked extensively with Strickland, says his school’s relationship with MIT has provided help from top-notch graduate students, the development of a new school that serves its students better than a traditional school might, and, most important, one of the first examples of how Paterson can rebuild itself from within its schools.

In Strickland’s view, help from the students is a vital part of any attempt to rejuvenate the city.

“They’re setting a tone for the town,” he says. “The kids—as the kids in the civil rights movement did—can push the envelope and change the culture.”

Gabriel Cohello, a 9th grader, exhibited this hope on a poster displayed in the media-arts academy.

“While Paterson may not be the best or safest place on entire earth, it is a city rich with history and a glorious past,” he wrote. “I still don’t know what will become of Paterson. Only time can tell us the answer.”

Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2000 edition of Education Week as Work in Progress


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