SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ - Since taking over as principal of South Plainfield High School four and a half years ago, Dr. James Pedersen has been instrumental in the establishment of dozens of new programs, has overseen necessary facilities upgrades and has worked diligently to update student safety measures. But, perhaps what sets Pedersen apart, is the fresh, energetic and hands-on approach he brought to the district.
“I came in with a different type of philosophy,” said Pedersen. “I didn’t want South Plainfield High School to change because of me. I wanted to be mindful of the things we did and the people it would affect.”
Last month, Pedersen announced he would be leaving July 27 to take on a position as superintendent for Essex County Vocational/Technical Schools. His departure means the board of education must add high school principal to its growing list of open administrative positions; in May, both Thomas Gialanella and Nicole Pormilli, interim superintendent and assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, respectively, announced they would be leaving the end of June.
“I knew that one day I wanted to be a superintendent – not because of the title but because I really like to lead, bring in new ideas and work to implement change,” said Pedersen, who had also applied for the superintendent position in South Plainfield.
Pedersen earned his bachelor’s degree in secondary education and English and his two master’s degrees – one in special education and the second in educational leadership – all from Jersey City University. Additionally, he obtained his doctorate in educational administration from Seton Hall University. He began his career as a teacher’s aid for a special education special in Jersey City before going on to work for the East Orange School District for 15 years. There, Pedersen served first as an English teacher and moved up the ranks, overseeing the English department, guidance, and other areas before being appointed assistant principal and then principal.
He came to South Plainfield High School in January 2011, replacing Dr. Ken May who had retired in June 2010; in the six months between May’s retirement and Pedersen’s appointment, South Plainfield High School had four interim principals, including Tony Massaro, Dr. Gary Bowen and Jose Negron; both Bowen and Negro also served simultaneously as high school principal and interim superintendent.
Pedersen brought to South Plainfield High School a multifaceted philosophy that was new and different. Rather than coming in and changing things to the way he felt they should be, Pedersen took the time to see what was and wasn’t working. “I didn’t come in and look to change South Plainfield High School because of me. I just wanted to make it better,” Pedersen said, adding that he also always tried to remain mindful of the decisions made and the people they would affect. “The things we were doing right, we kept doing; the things that were wrong we fixed and the stuff in the middle we addressed to make better.”
During his first year in the district, Pedersen established College and Day, and, in 2011, formed the South Plainfield High School Leadership Team. Pedersen worked to see new AP classes offered each year and, and as of September 2014, even made some available to incoming freshmen. Under his leadership, South Plainfield High School now offers DECA and robotics, there are engineering classes and a Teen Pep class, and music classes now have morning options.
In addition to programs and instruction, Pedersen also worked to see major – and much-needed facilities upgrades come to fruition. In 2013-2014, new gym lockers were installed and, last summer, walls were erected in the school’s science lab area to create four separate rooms. Additionally, the Information Center and instructional areas also received some much need updating.
“The teachers, staff, students and parents all have the ideas and there’s definitely a team approach here. My job was just to figure out what could be done, what couldn’t be done and what could be done first,” he said, adding, “So many people were part of all that was done here.”
On June 19, Pedersen will attend his fifth and last South Plainfield High School graduation and for him, it is all bittersweet. “It is the people and the relationships that have formed over my time here that I am most proud of and, because of that, it is what I will miss the most,” he said, adding, “I really like South Plainfield.”