GATE program opened at Midland Ave. BOE location

Kim Kayak’s fourth-graders were engaged in a creative problem solving lesson: figuring out how to “write” a character stuck in a train station out of a scene in an imagined train ride.

Across the hall, high school seniors in an “Introduction to Political Science” class were learning about the “Bern” factor in the presidential campaign.

That activity signaled that a basement space in a Midland Ave. building that for many months was filled with metal studs and dangling wires now has active classrooms.

The onetime commercial building, which sits on the southeast corner of Midland and Elm St., was adapted – after more than three years of stop-and-start work – in 2014 to accommodate the Kearny Board of Education headquarters on its first and second floors, install an elevator and convert an adjoining garage to a BOE meeting room and recently had instructional areas installed in its renovated basement.

On one side of the corridor is the GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) program for kids in grades 3 to 6 and on the opposite side is a Project LEAP (Learning Enables All Possibilities) classroom for high school students.

By agreeing to include instructional space in the refurbished building, the school district became eligible for 40% reimbursement of the $1.6 million construction costs by the state Schools Development Authority.

Initial plans called for high school students referred to the district’s in-house suspension program to occupy one of those new classrooms but in the end, district administrators opted to shift the LEAP students there, instead.

Schools Superintendent Patricia Blood said the GATE program began operating in Midland at the start of the fall semester.

“The students are bused [to Midland] from their home schools,” Blood said.

About 30 students from each of the four grade levels rotate through for weekly two-hour lessons which, according to district curriculum director Flora Encarnacao, incorporate “a blend of individual research and collaborative group sessions” that apply hands-on and interdisciplinary strategies.

Students explore a wide range of topics, including a study of Native Americans, how the stock market works, what’s involved in crime scene forensic investigations and the process of creating a toy, Encarnacao said.

Youngsters also are exposed to a series of scholastic competitions and cultural field trips, she said.

This year, Encarnacao said, the program offered a technological upgrade by providing a “laptop cart,” thereby ensuring that every student has access to the internet to facilitate his/her work on a research project, for example.

Getting into the GATE program is a competitive process, Encarnacao said. The district uses students’ scores on the Edmentum assessment test, along with grades and teachers’ recommendations to determine whom to accept, she said.

Even after they’re accepted, students must maintain their grades at no less than a B level and demonstrate they are achieving assessment benchmarks, she said.

Encarnacao said the district hopes it can expand the program if and when its budget capacity can allow that to happen.

It wasn’t until earlier this month that the district began using the other classroom for LEAP, Blood said.

In this program, high school students enroll in and take college-level courses offered by Hudson County Community College while completing their secondary school studies. Upon graduation from high school, students who successfully complete those courses may apply the credits earned towards a college degree.

“Initially, we bused our students to classes [at HCCC] in Jersey City,” Blood said.

Now, however, HCCC is sending faculty to Kearny to provide the classes, she said.

Last week, The Observer was permitted to peek in at a crowded LEAP poli-sci class where students were discovering what the instructor – and various political commentators – have characterized as the “Bern” factor, referring to the influence that presidential candidate Sen. Bernard Sanders has exerted over young voters.

“We’re excited to have these classes fully running here now,” said Blood, adding that the Midland space has also hosted professional development training sessions, periodically.

Ron Leir | Observer Correspondent

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc. He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter. He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based W.H.A.T. Co. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, N.Y.