WARREN, NJ  – As freshmen were being welcomed to their first-day-as-high-school-students orientation during a busy first week, at Watchung Hills Regional High School, faculty were talking about starting a year-long emphasis of creating a culture for greater collaborations between teachers and departments.
All students reported to school for the first time on Thursday, Sept. 4. Freshman orientation was held on Wednesday, Sept. 3. Faculty reported Tuesday, Sept. 2, for an opening assembly, training, activities, and opportunities to set up their classrooms.
Freshmen orientation was short, starting at the customary time with 7 a.m. arrivals, but ending with a mid-morning dismissal. In that short time, the freshmen received a taste of where their homerooms and lockers are located, and what it would be like to change classes throughout the day. They met teachers, and received helpful hints from peer leader upperclassmen volunteers. Superintendent Elizabeth Jewett and Principal George Alexis went to each of the freshman homerooms, welcoming the new students from the school’s four sending school districts: Warren Township, Watchung, Long Hill Township and Green Brook Township.
“I’d like to introduce you to Superintendent Jewett,” Alexis said to freshmen in each of their homerooms. “You may remember meeting me at the orientation we held for 8th grade students last January.” Jewett said that she was thrilled to see all the new students. “I want to wish you a wonderful four years,” Jewett said. “We are very excited to have you here, and I look forward to following your achievements. My office is just down the hall. Stop in to say hello. I hope you all have a great year.” Alexis said he couldn’t wait until Thursday when the freshmen would be joined the following day by their fellow students, the sophomores, juniors and seniors. “Come ready to give your best effort,” the principal said. “Keep an open mind. Ask questions. Be ready to learn. Be kind and respectful. I hope you have a great year.”

Jewett and Alexis welcomed teachers at their opening assembly on Tuesday. Also speaking on Tuesday were the new Director of Curriculum and Instruction Mary Ellen Phelan, who is the former supervisor of the English Department, and Beth Scheiderman, the Director of Human Services and Professional Development. Scheiderman introduced the school’s new teachers.
Jewett thanked the maintenance staff and support staff for the work they accomplished over the summer and in preparing the school in time for school’s opening. In addition to the customary painting, maintenance and cleaning, several major infrastructure improvement and replacement projects were undertaken, funded through a special $12.5 million referendum approved by voters last September.
Among the projects were the completion of the South Building roof replacement and the replacement of the aging steam pipe heating system In the South Building. These pipes had not been updated since the opening of the school some 50-plus years ago. More major infrastructure improvements approved by the referendum will be undertaken next summer. Some planning and preparation for next summer’s work will be started during the school year.
Jewett said a major thrust this year will be to expand opportunities for collaborations between teachers and departments. Administration will champion a collaborative culture among staff for the purpose of improving the teaching team’s effectiveness, she said. The team’s objective will be to maximize student opportunities to master content and become better prepared for college and beyond. The theme of the school’s leadership retreat in August was to talk about best practices to improve as a team, she said.
Phelan said the success of this summer’s ALS Ice Bucket Challenge nationwide can serve as an example of an unexpected grass roots success that ended up encouraging broad, enthusiastic participation. The challenge encouraged the use of imagination and creativity, she said. It valued creative ideas by kids as much as adults. It championed the development of a good idea, and found participants often acting as a team, Phelan said. Participants learned how to use social media, how to write a script, and how to make videos, she said. In the process, participants found themselves often smiling, laughing, and at times exhibiting unbridled joy and a sense of wonder. Participants became endorsers of the whole effort, too, encouraging others to join them in the effort to bring awareness and to support research to reverse the effects of the horrible disease ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Jewett said one of the critical ways to improve teamwork is to celebrate success. She listed some of the more notable successes during the past year. Last year, some 83 percent of students participated in a sport or extracurricular activity, she said. A number of Watchung Hills sport teams earned county, sectional and conference championships, including in boys soccer, girls soccer, boys and girls fencing, wrestling, softball and girls lacrosse. Students participated and earned honors in science and engineering fairs, at the Model UN and Mock Trial programs, and in the Science League and Math League. They qualified to participate in county, regional and state orchestras, bands and choral groups. They earned awards at annual art shows, she said.
Academically, Watchung Hills was named to the AP Honor Roll for participation and achievement. In 2014, some 1,059 AP exams were administered, an increase of 20 percent since 2010, and those exams were taken by 552 students, a 25 percent increase since 2010. Since 2010, the percent of students earning scores of 3 on the AP 5-point scoring scale has been a consistent 88 percent. Some 233 students received recognition as AP Scholars. Seventeen Watchung Hills students were recognized as National AP Scholars. They are students who received an average of 4 or more on all AP tests, and scores of 4 or better on eight or more AP tests. Annual SAT scores in 2014 is 1696, Jewett said.
And The Daily Beast, a national news web site, ranked Watchung Hills as the 123rd best public high school in the nation, which meant it was ranked 16th best in New Jersey, and second best behind only Bernards High School in Bernardsville in Somerset County. The ranking used some of the same metrics the school uses for its self-evaluation, such as ACT/SAT scores, graduation rates, college acceptance rates, and AP test performances, she said.