Challenging the status quo

A teen ticket and two independents have high hopes in school board election

Two recent graduates from Jersey City Schools are among the ten candidates running in this year’s Board of Education election, as well as an activist mom prominent in her school’s parent-teacher organization and 44-year veteran of the Jersey City schools.
Three of nine seats are up for grabs on Nov. 8 after three incumbents decided not to seek reelection this year. The election is for a three-year term starting in January.
There are three groups of candidates running: Education Matters, with Sudhan Thomas, Gina Verdibello, and Angel Valentin; Jersey City United with Asmaa Abdalla, Luis Fernandez, and Matthew Schapiro; and Fix It Now with two 19-year-old candidates Kimberly Goycochea and Mussab Ali.
Running as independents are Natalia Ioffe and Mark Rowan.
A story on Education Matters appeared in the Oct. 9 edition of The Jersey City Reporter; a story on Jersey City United appeared in the Sept. 25 edition. A story on a forum with all 10 candidates appeared in the Oct. 16 edition.

A kids’ ticket?

In order to run for the board, you must be at least 18, but it’s rare that anyone that young does. This makes the ticket of “Fix It Now,” featuring two 19-year-old former Jersey City students, unique.
Mussab Ali and Kimberly Goycochea say they bring the unique perspective to the election that none of the other candidates have: the impact of board decisions on students.
“We came through the public education system,” Ali said. “We know how to fix what’s wrong.”
Students, Ali said, spend a large part of their lives in and around the school, attending from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. five days a week, and so decisions that the board makes have a significant impact on their lives.
Ali, who graduated in the top ten percent of his class from McNair High School, arguably the best school in the district, says he had seen the impacts while coming up through the several schools he attended, so he and his running mate know what’s going on in the schools, day in and day out.
Goycochea, as a former student at Snyder High School, says she knows the issues students face.
“I believe we can bring an increased awareness and focus to the board,” she said, noting that the district has made progress with increased graduation rates and lower dropout rates, but the schools need to do better.
“Students are affected by decisions that are made by the board, but often do not have input,” Ali said.
Both students are critical of charter schools. The students say their roles on the board would be to support the public school system. They believe charter schools drain resources that public schools need.
While not explicitly against charter schools, both students were critical of shared accommodations, such as the use of Snyder High School as a location for one of the most prominent charter schools, Innovation High School. Students are often confused by schedules, but worse, Snyder kids sometimes feel discriminated against since Innovation often seems to provide students with better courses.
Both students said board members need to set aside personal bias when it comes to Superintendent Lyles.
“We all have to make decisions,” Goycochea said. “We have to be more open-minded and work as a team.”
Ali said board members serve as role models. The bickering needs to stop, and this should not be about picking sides.
Both say they are concerned about the increasing level of violence in and around schools, and how this has a negative impact on students’ learning experience.
Part of the solution is to get the community more involved in the schools. This should become a combined effort to help protect students and keep their focus on education.

Independent candidate Mark Rowan

Until he retired, Mark Rowan worked in the educational field in Jersey City for 44 years. He started in 1972 as a teacher’s assistant and eventually became a Student Assistance Coordinator and a Substance Awareness Coordinator, as well as performing numerous other duties.
Rowan has significant experience in alternative schools, as a member of various associations and other committees, where he has also served as president, chairman, and in other roles.
“I believe in alternative educational opportunities,” Rowan said.
He also believes in community involvement in the educational process. Rowan is deeply involved in civic activities, including with such organizations as the Kiwanis Club, where in 1993, he was named Kiwanian of the Year by the Kiwanis Club of Jersey City.
A graduate of Dickinson High School, he got his PA at St. Peter’s College, two Masters’ degrees from Jersey City State College, and his Ed.S from Rutgers University.
Rowan said he is concerned about getting local control back for the school district. The state of New Jersey took over the district in the last 1980s, citing such serious issues as conflicts of interest and cronyism. Late last year, the state returned partial control to the Board of Education, but has not yet returned some key operations.
Rowan said transparency in the board’s dealings with the public, accountability, and fiscal responsibility need to be addressed.
“The board and superintendent need to better communicate with the public about what they are doing,” Rowan said.
He said he believes there needs to be safe schools that help foster an educational climate in the classrooms. He is a strong believer in having police officers in the school.
“People say we do not have good schools; we have very good schools,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t make them better.”
Schools need to interact with the community, which makes for a better educational experience, he said.
He said many students can’t even pass the Army entrance test, which cuts off a significant pathway to higher education. While he doesn’t want schools to become recruitment centers for the military, he believes that members of the military can help students pass tests that they might want to take later.
The school district is undergoing significant population changes. There are widespread differences from school to school, in particular high schools such as Lincoln, which has about 800 students, and Dickinson which as about 2,300. This creates different challenges
Rowan said alternative school settings provide parents and students with a wider range of educational opportunities.
The student population will grow, and the stress on the public school system can be offset with charter and other schools.
He has no issue with Schools Superintendent Marcia Lyles.
“She’s adequate,” he said. “But it’s up to the board to work with her and give her direction.”

“No matter what happens in this election, I’m going to still be involved with the schools.” — Natalia Ioffe
The board establishes the policies, and the superintendent implements them. He said this should not be a conflict between the two. Rather they should work together to make certain things in the classroom improve.

Taking the next step for Natalia Ioffe

“No matter what happens in this election, I’m going to still be involved with the schools,” said Natalia Ioffe, who believes that her experience heading the PTA at Public School No. 16 has prepared her to serve on the Board of Education.
Ioffe has served as president and now vice president of Concerned Parents Association of the Cornelia F. Bradford Elementary School, where she says she learned a lot about organization and doing work similar to the kind of work she will encounter as a board member.
“Working in the school has giving me a lot of experience,” she said. “That won’t stop if I’m not elected. But I think I have something to offer.”
She believes that she can bring the same “bridge-building” ideas to the board that she has been involved in at PS 16.
As an officer of the parents’ organization, she has had to deal with similar administrative and policy decisions the board faces. She has to understand the need to provide nuts-and bolts items to classrooms, such as school supplies.
As an independent candidate, she says, she has no agenda when it comes to working with the superintendent of schools. She says the board needs to focus more on the students and less on disagreements.
“We’re there to provide the best education possible for the students,” she said.
She said Lyles has done things to help improve the schools, although there is more to be done.
Parents need to be more involved with their kids’ education, something she believes she can help promote.
“I understand the problems schools face,” she said. “But we need to work as a team to help give them what they need. We are the support system for schools.”
With family origins in a former Soviet state, Ioffe has a great appreciation for the opportunities a U.S. education provides, she said.
She got a good education here, getting her degree in international management and launching a career as a mortgage broker. She worked for the National Federal Credit Union, dealing with international work.
“I think I have the experience to be a member of the board,” she said. “But if voters decide not to elect me, I’m not going away. I will still be working in the school.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at

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