PATERSON, NJ - Ja’Kaira, Alyssa, and Jayleen share a common goal: to become professional athletes. The three, all freshmen at Garret Morgan Academy, also know that they have to have “a backup plan” citing careers in law enforcement or the legal field as possibilities.

And while they are only in their first weeks of high school, with a long and hopefully successful academic career ahead of them, they and their classmates have to start preparing now.

That was the message delivered by Superintendent Eileen Shafer who hosted her first of 12 “Welcome to High School, Class of 2023” pep rallies at International High School on Monday. Shafer will visit each of the city’s public high schools in the coming days.

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“We want to reach out to our students who are making the important transition to high school and let them know of the fantastic opportunities we have for them during their high school years,” Shafer said in a statement announcing the district wide effort.

After brief welcomes from both principals at the International High School campus, Assistant Superintendent Sandra Diodonet attempted to work with the students on “mindfulness” exercises. Undeterred and unflustered by the nervous giggles that filled the room as she asked students to focus on their toes and picture taking their last high school exam and preparing for their graduation ceremony, Diodonet explained that the meditative practices would help them “live in the present moment.”

The first year of high school, Shafer said after taking the stage, would set the students up for their futures, adding that her goal, as well as the goals of administrators, teachers, and family is to make sure the students “stay focused.”

“Too often students take a turn in the wrong direction,” Shafer warned referring to failed classes and missed academic opportunities that become burdens in later high school years. Without obtaining a high school diploma, she added, the students would have no choice than to spend a career working “menial jobs for menial paychecks” and “not have much of a future.”

Despite the dire prediction Shafer than offered assurances that she, and the Paterson Public Schools, weren’t going to let that happen, pointing to efforts that have nearly doubled graduation rates over the past 10 years rising to 85.7 percent at International High School and 90 percent at Garrett Morgan Academy.

While graduation rates have gone up, work is still being done to bring them higher, Shafer said, and efforts to increase college acceptances, which last year included Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania, and American University will continue. Parents and students alike will have opportunities throughout high school to learn more about financial aid and scholarships to make college more affordable.

Saying that students don’t need to know their academic or career futures immediately, Shafer asked them “to start thinking about it today.”

While the academic tools and counseling they need to be successful would be available to them, including access to laptops and the availability of several programs that will prepare students for careers, and perhaps earn them college credits while still in high school, Shafer said the students also have to take responsibility, including by showing up for school and adhering to the District’s Code of Conduct.

“Every day you miss is six hours of instruction,” Shafer, who has made increasing attendance rates another one of her key initiatives. 

It is this newly appointed individual responsibility that has already struck the three students who stopped after the assembly to speak with TAPinto Paterson. “Nobody is holding our hand,” Jayleen said. “We get encouragement but we have to take action.” 

“The teachers really care,” is what Alyssa said she has already learned in high school. “They want us to succeed, to do better, to have a future.”

For all three making their families proud of their academic achievements, and contributing to making Paterson better were revealed as goals. 

“I want to make my loved ones happy and I want to get somewhere in life,” Ja’Kaira, who shared that she lost her mother to illness at a young age. “”No matter what you go through you can accomplish what you want to” she concluded before the trio headed back to their classroom. 


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