Students in Fort Lee, the Bergen County town perched atop the Palisades cliffs overlooking the Hudson River, need only look south to see the skyscrapers of Wall Street and Manhattan’s financial industry. Thanks to an innovative program at Fort Lee High School, which was named the NJSBA’s School Leader Award Winner for 2014, the school district and the finance world are linked even more closely.

The Fort Lee “Academy of Finance” (AOF) is a small high school learning community that focuses on teaching students about the worlds of finance, economics and business. The program was selected for the award from among a dozen entries, and was honored in October at the New Jersey School Boards Association’s Centennial Workshop 2014.

The AOF, which started in 2005 with 20 students, now includes about 90 students in grades 9-12. It operates as a school-within-a-school, offering courses such as accounting, business economics, business in a global economy, and others that are aligned to economics, business and finance. Students take curriculum-enhancing trips to major financial centers in the New York area, such as the New York Stock Exchange, the NASDAQ, and the New York Federal Reserve Bank. The program advocates career readiness, focusing on careers in all business areas. To that end, students get work experience, by taking part in a mandatory 200-hour internship during the summer following their junior year.

In 2011, a Career Day was added to the program, bringing a panel of professionals and entrepreneurs to speak at the high school. Held this year in May, the Career Day was moderated by Nancy Stern, a consultant and chairperson of the Academy’s Advisory Board, and a former Fort Lee Board of Education president. The panel discussion covered topics such as networking, education and the “typical workday” of a business professional.

“The advice they gave was really good,” said one student afterward. “I was inspired to join more clubs and see what my passion is so when I graduate, I’ll know what I want to do.”

The Career Day panel also aims to teach students the importance of “transferable skills,” and impart the message that there is nothing wrong with making a career change. In fact, all of the panelists at this year’s Career Day told students that they had made a career change at some point in their lives.

The AOF was developed under the National Academy Foundation umbrella organization.

The program has a unique quality in that it calls upon the expertise of an Advisory Board, a group of volunteers who live and work in the Fort Lee community. The Advisory Board members are business professionals, who use their expertise to help prepare students for the highly competitive job market. Board members volunteer their time as speakers in classes, and mentors to students, helping them prepare for interviews, and reviewing resumes and cover letters. Advisory Board members also sponsor various special programs, and help students obtain summer internships.

School Leader award nominees were judged based on their level of innovation; how well they meet the specific needs of students; the relationship of the program to the state’s curriculum standards; and program results. The Fort Lee program was lauded by judges.

“Terrific program,” one of the judges wrote. “Utilizes community input to help students in an area of great need.”

The Academy of Finance program was also given near-perfect scores by the judges in areas of program content, and quality of entry.

The School Leader Awards are given to innovative school programs. Judges for the 2014 School Leader Awards included Don Webster, who is now NJSBA President; Anne Gallagher, communications department director for the New Jersey Association of School Administrators; and Dan Higgins, communications department director for the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.

The superintendent of the Fort Lee district is Mr. Paul J. Saxton, and the board president is Yusang Park.

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