By Ron Leir
He’s only been in his new job for about a month but Kearny High School Al Gilson hasn’t wasted any time starting to make his mark.
Gilson was hired by the Kearny Board of Education to replace Cynthia Baumgartner and he has spent many hours meeting with students, staff and parents to get a sense of how things work in his new school environment.
The former Lakewood High School principal says he likes a lot of what he sees and wants to build on it so that students – and faculty – can gain more confidence – and take pride in – their accomplishments.
“He’s made a good impression on me,” says an appreciative Denise Hasenfus, president of the Kearny High School Parent Teacher Association. “He seems to be an intelligent man. He cares about our school. I believe he’ll be there for our children.”
Last week, The Observer met briefly with Gilson in his high school office and a quick scan of his white board showed that the new administrator has been doing his homework.
On the board was a comprehensive, color-coded columns listing projects related to students and staff that he’ll be working on with his assistant principals, directors One, for example, he calls “Smart Cookies,” a strategy for recognizing individual efforts of teachers. He’s inviting staff in each subject area to nominate faculty for commendation for exceptional work in the classroom.
He plans to showcase the “winners” on a monthly basis.
“It’s a way of showing the kids our value for their education,” Gilson explained.
Also on the drawing board is a plan to get teachers to nominate a “Student of the Month” for different grades and/or classes. Student leaders will be called upon as well to help develop a set of criteria for recognizing their peers, Gilson said.
“We’ll have a breakfast for the kids and invite their moms and dads to celebrate their achievements,” Gilson said. “I hope to start this program by the end of January.”
At the same time, Gilson is enrolling teachers and students in art classes to pictorially highlight the everyday efforts of “kids at work.”
“I want to reinforce a ‘cando’ attitude by showing, in a couple of different media, pictures of our kids doing the things they do in the classroom,” Gilson said. “When kids come into the school, they’ve got to see themselves in an academic light.
They’re doing great things and by holding a mirror up to them, they’re going to see things in a different, positive light.”
Mindful of the potential distractions from the ongoing construction at the high school, Gilson said he also recognizes the need for structure as part of students’ daily routine.
To that end, he said he’s talked to Student Council members about helping spread the word about such things as cleanliness in hallways, classrooms and the cafeteria.
“I try to set an example by picking up litter when I’m walking the halls,” he said.
“We’re also going to be distributing lanyards for student ID cards,” Gilson said. “It’s good practice and, frankly, it’s a great way for me to get to know kids’ names.”
To keep open the lines of communication, Gilson has been emailing a two-page newsletter Sunday nights to his staff. “It’s a way of highlighting events upcoming, like encouraging people to attend the next sports contest, or things we want to tighten up,” he said.
At some point, Gilson hopes to tour the high school neighborhood to visit parents and get feedback from them in a more personal setting.
It’s all going down well for parent leader Hasenfus.
Gilson, she said, strikes her as a “rule follower – a stickler for order – and for a school the size of Kearny High School with between 1,700 and 1,800 kids, you really need that.”
Hasenfus will be inviting Gilson to the PTA’s Jan. 17 meeting so the group’s members get a chance to meet and question him.
And she also plans to organize another meeting “for our entire school system” around the issue of school safety, in the aftermath of the deadly shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
“All school districts need to upgrade security,” Hasenfus said. “You can’t just have a cop in every school.” Possible answers will be explored at the meeting.