Before heading to the library of Salem City’s high school for a recent monthly board of education meeting, Sister Carol Adams stopped by the main office to drop off something: a bag of woolen hats she knitted for students in the school’s blue and white colors.

“A lot of our students have to walk almost two miles to get to school, and part of the walk is on a stretch of road that doesn’t have any trees to stop the wind,” she said, “it gets cold, so in my spare time, I knit hats for the kids and tell the office just to give them out to anybody who asks for one. I get a kick out of seeing the kids wearing the hats I made.”

The gesture speaks volumes about Adams’ focus on students — and on how she concentrates in ways large and small on what they need. It is also indicative of the type of school board member she is, and why the group of independent judges who choose New Jersey’s school board member of the year selected her for the honor for 2018-2019.

Salem City, an SDA (Schools Development Authority), or former Abbott, district is located in New Jersey’s southwest county of Salem. This K-12 district has about 1200 students, and a high rate of poverty. According to the latest available School Performance Report from the New Jersey Department of Education, some 63 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. 

But neither Adams, who is her board’s vice president, nor the rest of the board, have let those demographics dictate lower expectations for the district’s students. Beginning in September 2012, Salem High School, which has about 400 students, instituted an option for students in their junior and senior years of high school to complete the International Baccalaureate Diploma program, an academically rigorous program that provides a global perspective.

In recent years, Salem City has also increased its Advanced Placement course offerings from four to 11 courses, and implemented a STEM Pre-Engineering program for students via Project Lead the Way. The district now has an articulation agreement with Rowan University that allows Salem City students to receive college credits at the school’s college of engineering.

“Carol was a driving force in requiring that our students have access to the most outstanding educational programs available,” noted Dr. Amiot Michel, the district superintendent, in nominating her. “She insisted that we invest in offering the IB Diploma Programme, expand AP course offerings and implement a STEM Pre-Engineering program.”  

“The more you expect from kids, the more you get,” says Adams.

Carol Adams has devoted her lifetime to helping others. Born and raised in Newark, she seriously considered a career in nursing before embarking on a 34-year career in education. She entered the novitiate after high school, training to become a nun with the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Peace in Englewood Cliffs, and earning a degree in Spanish and elementary education from Caldwell College,  as well as a graduate degree in elementary and secondary administration from Glassboro State College, now Rowan University.

She began teaching at Our Lady of Peace School in Fords, New Jersey, then transferred to St. Mary’s in Salem, where she spent most of her career, including several years as the school principal.

It was after St. Mary’s school closed in June 2000 that Adams, encouraged by community members, joined the Salem City Board of Education. She has now spent more than 17 years on the board.

While moving her focus from a Catholic school community to a public school community, her mission has remained the same. “I think the most valuable thing you can do for your community is to serve on your school board,” she says. “Education is something no one can take away from you; it is hope for the poor. We are working to change the trajectory of our students, so they can break the chain of generational poverty.”

Key to the implementation of Salem City’s initiatives has been how well the board works together and with the district superintendent.   While board members may have different viewpoints on any given issue, once a decision is made, the board prides itself on presenting a united front to the community, according to Adams. “We sometimes agree to disagree,” she says. Each week, the superintendent sends the board members a brief update on what is happening in the schools, and often includes educational articles for the board to read. “I call that my professional development.”

Some of the toughest decisions the board makes, she says, are personnel decisions. “Sometimes board members are privy to confidential information and have to make a decision on a staff member who is a popular figure in the community,” she says. “However, the community is confused or upset with the board. That is difficult.”

Critical to being a good board member, according to Adams, is coming to board service without an agenda beyond serving the students and making the schools better. “Sometimes I think new board members think they know more than they do, but then they come and hear all sides of the story,” she says. “Board members have to be open to learning and working together.”  

Echoing a common sentiment among board members throughout the state, she says her favorite times as a board member are when she attends student recognition ceremonies. “I’m so proud when we go to graduation ceremonies, the spring and winter concerts, when we hear students acknowledge their parents and families during the National Honor Society ceremonies, and when we recognize students of the month for both academic and social growth,” she says. “That’s when we know we have made a difference in adding programs and services that support and benefit students socially, emotionally and academically.”

Adams remains involved in other nonprofit activities throughout the community. In addition to serving on the Salem City Board of Education, she also serves on the the Salem Health and Wellness Foundation. 

The students of Salem City, many of whom facing challenging circumstances, have a special importance for this lifelong educator. “I’m proudest that the kids know that we believe in them and that they can succeed,” she says.

Janet Bamford is managing editor of School Leader magazine.