SOMERVILLE, NJ - The electronic horn resonates in the hallways of Somerville High School to signal the end of the school day, but outside Room 214 a crowd of freshmen with backpacks and book bags congregates waiting for the door to open.
The students file in, right arms extended, to fist bump the teacher who greets them just inside the room. It’s the usual routine, every Monday and Wednesday. A few of the freshmen offer congratulations to the teacher, whom they address as “Coach.”
It’s time for what some call Period 10, or The Extra Period, when members of the Pioneers’ freshmen football team gather for an hour-long study hall under the strict supervision of Coach Mike Skomba, a Social Studies teacher who has made his mark in the classroom this year having been named Somerset County Teacher of the Year for the 2017-18 academic year.
He is the second SHS teacher accorded the professional distinction; in 2013, SHS choir director Karen Gorzynski was selected Somerset County Teacher of the Year.
SHS principal Jerry Foley circulated an e-mail to staff late in the day Tuesday when the announcement was made by the state Department of Education; on Wednesday, he spread the news on the public address system during morning announcements.
Foley said Skomba is well-liked and well-deserving of the award. He and teachers in New Jersey's other 20 counties will now go through a selection process to see who will be selected as New Jersey Teacher of the Year.
The announcement triggered well wishes and congratulations from the staff and students throughout the day – more fist bumps, handshakes, pats on the back and a chorus of “atta-boys.”
Skomba is a 2005 graduate of Somerville High School, and works alongside many of the teachers he had during his years as a student, where he also played varsity football for three years staring on offense and defense. He also sang in the high school choir.
He moved on to the College of New Jersey and was captain of the Division III team, earning All-Conference honors in the New Jersey Athletic Conference before graduating in 2009.
Last year, he earned his Master’s degree taking courses administered by Fairleigh Dickinson University through an extension program at SHS.
“I’d be in the weight room downstairs at 4:45 and upstairs in the classroom at 4:46,” he said.
Soft-spoken, Skomba said he’s flattered by the good wishes and said he particularly enjoys sharing the award with those teachers he now calls colleagues, the ones who taught and inspired him, helping influence his career choice.
“Part of this award is theirs,” he said. “To share it with them is very special.”
Skomba, 30, said he was also surprised by the students’ reactions.
“My home room went nuts, clapping and cheering,” he said.
He implemented the mandatory study hall for his freshmen players last year, respectful of academics and understanding team members could benefit from the discipline and extra work in the classroom.
The second-floor classroom in the northwest corner of the school is home base for Skomba; an orange and black Pioneers’ football helmet sits on a desk in front of the room. It’s also where he works with students as advisor to the SHS Yearbook.
His passion for American history spills over to his personal life; it seems that whenever he is on vacation, he immerses himself in his surroundings, absorbs the experience and brings it back to the classroom. He spoke of spending time on an Indian reservation in New Mexico, where he taught for a year; during a trip to France, he walked along the beaches of Normandy, where thousands of American soldiers were killed on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Closer to home, he invites members of the Rolling Thunder Motorcycle Club based in Neshanic Station to visit his class and speak of their experiences during the Vietnam War.
Sitting at a conference table in Foley’s office, the principal urged Skomba to share his experiences in Little Havana during a trip to Miami. Skomba met several Cuban expatriates by chance when he stopped at a small café for coffee. A conversation ensued, and as it turns out, he chose to stop by on the anniversary of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, a botched CIA-backed mission that was meant to overthrow Fidel Castro.
Many of the Cubans drinking coffee with Skomba had been there, fighting to restore democracy in their homeland.
Skomba befriended one of them, Ramon Machado,an officer who helped to lead the invasion.
Machado has witten a book, "Cuba,My (Twice) Betrayed Generation."
Skomba stays in touch with Machado, and has brought the Cuban expatriate into his classroom via Skype to offer his students a first-hand account of the historic event.
“This is more than a job to me,” Skomba said. “It’s what I love to do.”