It takes a whole team to create a positive and conducive learning environment in a school. 

In New Jersey there are long-standing — and well-deserved — recognition programs for teachers, administrators and even board of education members. However, the contributions of essential staffers in several categories are often overlooked. 

That’s why the New Jersey School Boards Association started the “Unsung Superheroes” awards program in 2023. The name is a play on the Workshop 2023 theme, “Today’s Students, Tomorrow’s Superheroes,” and the program honors staffers who work tirelessly behind the scenes, making an immeasurable impact on our schools and local communities.

Staff members in 10 categories were recognized, including administration/secretary; bus driver/aide; cafeteria/food services; coach/club adviser; crossing guard; custodian/maintenance/building and grounds; librarian/media specialist; paraprofessional/aide; school nurse; and school security personnel. There was also a football chain official recognized for his contributions.

The Unsung Superheroes with NJSBA’s officers and Dr. Timothy Purnell, far left, the executive director and CEO of the NJSBA.
The Unsung Superheroes with NJSBA’s officers and Dr. Timothy Purnell, far left, the executive director and CEO of the NJSBA.

These individuals strive to provide a safe and nurturing environment for our students. 

NJSBA received more than 200 nominations from 112 districts throughout the state. “This speaks to the appreciation that students and staff have for these school staff members who are typically overlooked,” said Dr. Timothy Purnell,  executive director and CEO of the NJSBA. 

Join us in congratulating the inaugural recipients. Each winner in this article is  pictured with Karen Cortellino, M.D., president of the NJSBA.: 

Charae Thompson-Perry, Camden City School District, was the winner in the administration/secretary category. She is the senior director of community partnerships in the Camden City School District. With over 30 years of dedication to the very district that nurtured her, she embodies the essence of prioritizing students. During her free time, she coaches a group of over 60 young individuals in cheerleading, and personally provides students in need with food and clothing.

Vernon Berube, Beach Haven School District, was the winner in the bus driver/aide category. He has served Beach Haven Elementary School since 2009. A member of the community since 1960, he takes care of his bus and the school’s children as if they were his own. He takes time to get to know each student and family, and continuously evaluates and adjusts his procedures to ensure the utmost safety for children. A beloved member of the district, he also gives back to the community by supporting the PTA and many local businesses.

Anthony Fink, Hamilton Township School District, was the winner in the cafeteria/food services category. He is the food service supervisor for the Hamilton Township School District. During the pandemic, he developed and implemented programs to ensure students received nutritious meals, whether they were attending school in-person or on a hybrid basis. He was instrumental in establishing efficient breakfast and lunch distribution programs, giving students access to quality meals even in uncertain times. 

Laura Chegwidden, Kinnelon School District, was the winner in the coach/club adviser category. She is the head coach of Kinnelon High School’s cross country and track teams. “Coach Chegs” is highly acclaimed by her superintendent, students and board of education members. She openly and proudly praises her athletes at board of education meetings.

James Schroeder, Verona Public School District, was the winner in the crossing guard category. He has been stationed at the street corner of Forest Avenue and Hillside Avenue for almost 20 years. Every day, regardless of weather conditions, he responsibly and cheerfully guides children across the street. He knows each child and their parents by name, greeting them with a smile every day. 

Kristian Byk, Watchung Hills Regional High School District, was the winner in the custodian/maintenance/building and grounds category. He has served as the director of operations for buildings and grounds at Watchung Regional High School for the past four years, though he has been an employee for 21 years. He ensures students learn in a safe environment and is always available, going above and beyond his responsibilities daily. 

Theresa DiGeronimo, Hawthorne Borough School District, was the winner in the librarian/media specialist category. She is the media specialist at Hawthorne High School and has served in this role for 18 years. She has created a media center that has invaluable resources for every student and staff member. She encourages student input on library materials, notifies teachers of the resources available to them and ensures media center materials are aligned with the curriculum. She updates the school’s social media and produces a monthly media center newsletter.

Jennifer Voli, Bloomingdale School District, was the winner in the paraprofessional/aide category. She has been a paraprofessional within the Bloomingdale School District for 16 years and currently works at Samuel R. Donaldson Elementary School. Described as a “godsend” by teachers and administrators, she can be counted on for everything and has a deep, genuine love for supporting all students. She embraces what a student needs to be successful and encourages them to be active participants in the community. 

Lauryn Hooven, Weymouth Township School District, was the winner in the school nurse category. She is described as an exemplary nurse and employee. Every member of the school relies on her expertise. Even in emergencies, she maintains a calm and professional demeanor. She goes out of her way to check up on students’ well-being, both physical and emotional. She plans proactive health events for the school and is an integral member of Weymouth Township School District.

Officer Nicole DeBiase, Somerville School District, was the winner in the school security personnel category. She is a community police officer who serves Van Derveer Elementary School. She participates in school functions. She understands how building relationships with the school community strengthens the overall safety and security of the school. Described as one in a million, she does all that she can to support the academic and emotional growth of all Van Derveer students.

There was also a special recognition for John Prudente, a football chain official at Somerville School District. Prudente has served Somerville High School for 50 years as the chain official, part of the school’s “chain gang.” He has the very important responsibility of ensuring the school’s football games are tracked accurately from the sidelines. Over the years, he has been part of four undefeated seasons and eight state championships. He has missed only one game in his decades-long career of being a chain official.

Nomination information for the 2024 Unsung Superheroes awards will be announced in School Board Notes in Spring 2024.