PATERSON, NJ- Commanding the attention of all in attendance, kindergarten students from Paterson’s Public School 21 opened Wednesday’s community education forum with song. Despite lines calling for frowning and sad faces it was, it seemed, impossible to wipe away the singer’s toothy grins.

“They are what it’s all about,” stated school principal, Joanne Riviello.

After commending the students for their performance Riviello would turn her attention to several students who received certificates for having perfect attendance so far this school year. Each of the students recognized, Riviello offered, suffered from “chronic absence” last year. Chronic absence, according to Riviello, is defined as missing 18 or more days of school in an academic year.

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“It’s a new year and a new me,” said eighth grader Harold Alcantara, when asked about receiving the certificate. Interrupted more than once by congratulations from teachers while answering questions, Alcantara said that this school year he “wants to keep coming, to keep learning.”

“Everybody should get excited about doing better in school, and getting a good job,” said Alcantara who hopes to become a doctor.

Mily Paulino, Alcantara’s mother, said that the certificate is a reflection of her son “growing up.”

When asked about Wednesday’s presentation, and her own experiences attending Paterson schools as a child, Paulino said she believes there are a lot of improvements, and that “teachers are working harder than ever with the students.”

Acting Superintendent Eileen Shafer would then take the microphone to address the audience. The presentation, given at three previously held forums, and available online herepdf, offered attendees a look at her short term and long term goals for continuing to improve education for Paterson’s children.

Included in the goals offered by Shafer are adding Saturday reading programs, increasing parent and community engagement, instituting half-year art and music programs for all schools and continuing to address attendance challenges for chronically absent children while also increasing staff attendance.

Paterson’s schools, Shafer would tell the audience, have been “flat funded” by Trenton for several years. While costs such as utilities, teaching supplies and textbooks have gone up, they have been “shortchanged by the state by 280 million dollars.”

Shafer, who became acting superintendent in July following the retirement of Donnie Evans, also offered her belief that the transition from state control to local control of the city’s schools would “inspire hope,” and that with the help of teachers, administration, students and, most especially, the parents, they’d be able to give Paterson’s children “the education they deserve.”

Following her presentation Shafer would take questions from the audience regarding grading, class sizes and parental involvement.

In response to one question about why Paterson’s schools considered sixty percent a passing grade Shafer announced that they were going to increase that to 70 percent incrementally over three years. “If we raise the bar for our students, they will reach the bar,” Shafer said.

Shafer, according to John McEntee, president of the Paterson Education Association (PEA), is “without a doubt a hard worker.” Impressed by her first thirty days on the job McEntee said that he and the PEA “will continue to work with Ms. Shafer to move Paterson’s public school system forward.”

As she prepared to leave the event with her mother, Natasha Miller, a fourth grade student, smiled with her perfect attendance certificate in hand and said that this year she is “excited to be learning more, with mom’s help.”

Two more community forums are scheduled for Thursday at MLK School and Monday, October 16 at Public School 25. Both forums start at 6:00 p.m.