Dr. James Fazzone recalls giving a tour to an English language learner from Vietnam while completing an administrative internship at Steinert High School in Hamilton.

“It seemed he just didn’t speak one word of English,” said Fazzone, now the interim superintendent of the Mercer County Technical School District. “But I was told his transcripts were good.”

When Fazzone walked the student into a classroom, there was a “high-end math problem” on the blackboard that looked like it was written by Albert Einstein, he said.

“I pointed at it and asked the student, ‘What do you think?’” Fazzone said.

The student looked him square in the eye and said the only word of English he uttered the entire tour: “Easy.”

Math is a universal language – just like autobody work, culinary arts, horticulture, building trades and other such subjects, Fazzone said.

That was what hit him that day, and also what made him so excited to launch the Hernández Newcomer SLIFE Academy at the Arthur R. Sypek Center in Pennington in September, a new academy that serves English language learners at the Mercer County Technical School District. (SLIFE stands for “students with limited or interrupted formal education.”)

The Newcomer Academy was named after Yasmin E. Hernández, the interim executive county superintendent for Mercer County, which has 11 public school districts. Hernández was instrumental in advocating for the need of such an academy after district superintendents approached her about the need.

Mercer district superintendents explored the idea further at roundtable meetings and leaned on Hernández for support, who spearheaded the creation of the Newark International Newcomer Student Center when she was an education administrator at Newark Public Schools. In April 2010, the Newark center was designated as a Bilingual/ESL N.J. Model Program Resource Center of Excellence for the 2010-2012 award period for New Jersey.

“I kept hearing about a center for English language learners and thought it sounded like a good idea – and I wasn’t sure why we hadn’t done it,” Fazzone said. “Hernández’s initiative, her thought process and her bringing to us the need has been invaluable. She is very enthusiastic and supportive of everything we have done so far.”

Fazzone, who served as principal of MCTS for two years before taking the interim superintendent role for the district, was happy to help make the concept a reality.

“I don’t like talking about things too long and not acting on them,” he said. “There were some grandiose thoughts: rehabbing a building and restoring it, but that takes a lot of work. I had experience as a mayor (of Burlington City) and as a board president – and I know it takes a long time to get a big building ready.”

So, he advocated for starting the program at MCTS’s Arthur R. Sypek Center, which could accept students from various districts. The freshman class began with 15 students, and the intent is to add 15 more next year and in subsequent years. When the freshmen of the inaugural class are seniors, if all goes as planned, there will be 60 students enrolled at the academy. Students could potentially stay a fifth year – and Fazzone did not rule out the possibility of expanding the program if needed.

“I would like to keep the Newcomer Academy right where it is for now, but we are going to have another facility by Nottingham High School (in Hamilton), and we can possibly move some of our other current programs there,” he noted.

The Newcomer Academy students will get a sampling of MCTS’s traditional offerings, but the focus will be on horticulture and culinary arts. MCTS has hired a bilingual supervisor and bilingual teacher to support the program. There was a ribbon-cutting ceremony Sept. 28.

Fazzone thinks a vocational education is a great option for all students. In addition to the Newcomer Academy, the Mercer County Technical School District includes the Academy of Culinary Arts, the Health Sciences Academy, a STEM Academy, numerous Shared-Time Programs and an adult evening school. The campuses include the Arthur R. Sypek Center of Pennington, the Assunpink Center in Hamilton and the Career Prep Program located on the grounds of Mercer County Community College.

“Many of the kids within a year of graduating can get high six-figure jobs without ever having had to take out a college loan,” Fazzone said. “After learning to be a mechanic, you can go anywhere in the country and get a job tomorrow. You can come here and learn a trade. We earn our money the old-fashioned way: We work for it.”

So far, the Newcomer Academy students are doing great, Fazzone said.

“They are learning as they go,” he said. “They are a great bunch of kids, and they seem really happy. The language barrier is there, but they are breaking that down as I understand it.”

There is support for the students at each step of the way from dedicated bilingual staff, Fazzone said. “We want them to get to a high level of achievement, but where they are starting from and how they get there can be different for each student,” he said.

High school counselors from sending school districts, which for the first set of students included Trenton, Hopewell, Hamilton and Princeton, are also pleased, Fazzone said. “There was a good, high level of communication between our school and the sending districts,” Fazzone said. “All the folks we have talked to seem excited about having them here,” he said.

The academy seems to be a home run, Fazzone said.

“You know, sometimes there is a pitch and you hit it, and you don’t know why you hit it out of the park,” he said. “This one we kind of hit out of the park. Once we got started, it worked really well.”

It may boil down to there being such a need, he said upon further reflection.

“Necessity is the mother of invention: We didn’t want kids dropping out because of a cultural difference or language barrier,” he said.

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