Connors principal relishes national award nomination

Says synergy of parents, teachers, and students made it possible

“The World’s Greatest,” an inspiring record by R. Kelly, can be heard blaring from the speakers of the Thomas G. Connors School on any given morning. It has become so engrained into the course of the day at the elementary school that recently, when meeting with a parent and running late, a fifth grader named Dorian was quick to remind the principal, “You forgot to play the theme song.”
Principal Gerald Fitzhugh took the helm at Connors School in August 2012. Often seen sporting a bow tie, Fitzhugh is a familiar sight in the hallways and you’d be hard-pressed to find him sitting in his office. He says he can name every one of the school’s 247 students and proves it during a tour, referring to several students by their first name. One student in the stairwell tells him he’s heading to the nurse’s office while another in the hall calls over, “Hey, Godfather Fitzhugh,” before giving him a hug and heading off to class.
It’s no wonder that Fitzhugh is one of two Hoboken educators nominated for a Life Changer of the Year Award for the 2015-2016 school year from National Life Group. (Watch for an article on the other educator, who is at the Hudson School, in the coming weeks.) Assistant Superintendent Dr. Miguel Hernandez submitted Fitzhugh’s name for the award earlier this year.
The Life Changer of the Year is an annual program that rewards K-12 education professionals.

“This morning I was in a grade 6 language arts class working on comprehension. I try to do it at least two days a week.” – Principal Gerald Fitzhugh II
“The main goal for us is to bring these awards into the schools and bring a lot of rapport around the school and what it has been doing for the community,” said Joseph Scotti of National Life Group.
After the nominations close on Jan. 15, 2016, a selection committee of past award winners will review hundreds of nominees from throughout the U.S and choose 15 winners.
“They also call me Uncle Fitzhugh, or just Principal Fitzhugh,” he said during an interview at the school.
Connors has made some significant changes during Fitzhugh’s tenure, like climbing out of Focus Status. The status refers to a comparison of standardized test scores among members of various minority groups and kids with disabilities. He has also worked to strengthen the bond between the school’s students, teachers, and parents by making visits to homes if a student is struggling, hosting workshops for parents to help identify self-esteem issues and organizing a breakfast for Honor Roll students.
Past reports from the Reporter indicate that among the city’s schools, Connors stands out as the most segregated. In the 2012-13 school year, the school was 4 percent white. It was also 97 percent economically disadvantaged, based on students’ eligibility for free or reduced price lunch. Connors is the closest elementary school to the Hoboken Housing Authority (HHA) main campus, where the majority of Hoboken’s low-income residents live. However, Fitzhugh says that he has not heard many negative comments about this district-wide issue. He also said that during his time at the school, he has received nothing but support from the school district.
“Every morning in the gymnasium I do the ‘one voice,’ where the children get direction from [me]. I’m never absent, so they hear my voice every day,” he said while laughing. “I think it’s important we begin our day with peace and tranquility because I think it’s important kids don’t [go to class] in wild type of nature.”
Last June, Connors learned that it had met the requirements to be released from Focus status, by improving its scores on the statewide NJASK exam.

‘Everybody plays a part’

The Connors principal was born in Newark, grew up in East Orange, and currently lives in Maplewood with two children ages 3 and 5. Before coming to Hoboken about four years ago and joining one of three elementary schools, he was the principal at Chancellor Avenue Annex School in Newark for two years, the vice principal of Dr. William H. Horton Elementary School for four and a half years, and the special assistant to the regional superintendent of the south region of the Newark Public Schools for one year.
This year, Fitzhugh launched a “middle school advisories” program, in which students and teachers explore less conventional subjects such as yoga, dance, gardening, and digital photography.
“The teachers work very diligently,” said Fitzhugh. “We have common planning periods where the teachers present, I present, and we look at the current trends in educational pedagogy and we work at creating commonality of language throughout the building.”
He says everybody plays a part in the building’s educational system, and no job is too small.
“This morning I was in a grade six language arts class working on comprehension. I try to do it at least two days a week,” he said. “Some of us here in the building are parents and we want students to have that home and school connection.”
In terms of potential behavior issues, student have also received support from the school’s Positive Behavior Supports in School (PBSIS) program, which is very much in line with Connor’s motto: “Commit to learning, Act responsibly, Respect everyone, Effort matters, and this will result in the school Soaring to success” (CARES).
While Fitzhugh noted that the nomination’s exposure is enough, if he were to win the top prize of $10,000, the school would conduct an assessment to determine where the money would prove the most effective.
“Our overall goal is to become high performing, continue focus on parent’s programs and look at ways to integrate technology into the classroom.”
To learn more of the nominees and vote for Principal Fitzhugh, visit

Steven Rodas can be reached at

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