Paterson Superintendent Eileen Shafer is a New Kind of Leader

A veteran administrator takes on the challenge of leading Paterson's troubled schools out of the dark days of state control.

Veteran administrator Eileen Shafer takes on the challenge of leading Paterson's troubled schools out of the dark days of state control.
Among other initiatives, superintendent Eileen Shafer has brought music and art classes back to all of Paterson’s elementary schools.
Photo by Fred R. Conrad

It’s a Tuesday morning in Paterson, and Eileen Shafer, the district superintendent, is meeting with high school student leaders. 

“I need to hear from you what’s working in your school, what’s not working, where we can do better,” she tells them.

A few mention strong relationships with faculty: “Our teachers care about us,” says one girl.  But they have complaints, too: Internet connections are balky, some teachers are too strict, and in some schools, students have to wait for security guards to open up bathrooms that have been locked to prevent vandalism.

Shafer promises she’ll look into the concerns: “The reason I talk to you is because I want to make it better.” 

The session is emblematic of Shafer’s style as she prepares to lead Paterson, New Jersey’s third largest school district, out of almost three decades of state control. A longtime Paterson administrator, Shafer became acting state superintendent in July 2017 and was offically appointed to the state job in February 2018. She has won praise for meeting frequently with parents, students, teachers, political leaders and community members.

“She has an ear to what’s going on,” says Robert Scott, a parent and PTO leadership president for the district.  “She has the relationships to the community—to our community and our kids,” says Rosie Grant, executive director of the Paterson Education Fund, a nonprofit advocacy group.  

It is in some ways surprising that Shafer, who lives at the Jersey Shore, is seen as the homegrown pick to lead the overwhelmingly minority district (two-thirds of students are Latino and about a quarter are African-American) back to local control. She is the first non-minority individual to hold the job permanently in more than 40 years. She is also the first woman ever to hold the post. 

Some observers say she’s more functionary than visionary, having spent a career navigating district politics, and that, at 61, she could be a placeholder who will stay in the job only until local officials complete the takeover. Shafer disputes this idea.

“If there is one thing people should take away from my 27 years of service to the Paterson public schools, it’s that I am in it for the long haul,” she says. “Being superintendent is not a short-term assignment for me; it’s a passion. I want my students to be successful.”

That sense of commitment has earned Shafer the support of a cross-section of this diverse city.

“Her work ethic is exemplary,” says Paterson mayor Andre Sayegh, who got to know Shafer when he sat on the school board a decade ago. “She has risen through the ranks… and broken the glass ceiling.”

The complaints from the high schoolers show that, as much as school administrators might prefer to focus on the big picture, there’s plenty of small stuff to sweat in a district with nearly 29,000 students in pre-K through high school. Shafer manages a complex organization with about 4,500 employees, 54 schools plus three alternative-education schools, and an annual budget (mostly funded by the state) that this year tops $585 million.

The new superintendent has started several initiatives aimed at, among other goals, improving attendance and expanding social services in the schools. At the heart of these efforts, says Shafer, is a focus on student achievement and appropriate reading levels. A new K-5 reading program is designed to help students read at grade level—an important priority. Shafer has also brought back music and art in all the elementary schools. Those classes were shoved aside after the state took over in 1991. At the time, test scores were so abysmal that state officials felt the students should focus only on the core subjects. While some arts classes were restored over the years, budget issues left other schools without art and music until 2018.

Nathan Webb, a middle-school music teacher at New Roberto Clemente School, says the return of the arts is important for students. “Sometimes music can bring out emotions and expressions that they may not be able to bring out anywhere else,” he says.

One of his students, eighth-grader Anthony Arias, agrees: “I just feel like when I’m singing and playing an instrument, all my problems, I leave them aside and feel more calm.”

New Jersey was the first state in the country to allow state takeovers of so-called failing districts. Nearly two dozen states followed with similar mechanisms that stripped local school boards of most decision-making authority and brought in outside experts to run districts.

In taking over the Paterson schools in 1991, the state cited mismanagement, corruption and poor student performance. Newark, Jersey City and Camden were also placed under state control; only Camden remains so, while the other districts are transitioning back to local control.  

The state Board of Education agreed in May 2018 to begin to restore local control to Paterson based on the district’s improvements in areas that included instruction and programming, operations, governance and finances. The district must continue to make progress in those areas and will be monitored by state officials, with the goal of returning to full local control by 2020. 

During the transition period, decision-making authority has returned to the local school board, which had acted only in an advisory capacity under state control, according to Michael Yaple, director of public information for the state Department of Education.

“After 27 years of having someone else govern us, I think you’ll agree that it’s time for the Paterson community and Paterson voices to be heard,” Shafer told parents at a recent workshop. 

While the state takeovers—all in majority-minority districts—were presented as reform, many viewed them as a kind of educational colonialism.  Relationships with the community and unions were often fraught. 

In Paterson, a succession of seven superintendents from outside—including individuals with advanced education degrees and impressive résumés from big districts like Providence, Boston and Fairfax County, Virginia—tried a series of reforms that did little to significantly move the needle in a city with high poverty rates and many schools that experience a high annual turnover of students. (The families of many Paterson students, a spokesman explains, have fled crises like the war in Syria and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.) 

Under state control, the district notched modest gains in student achievement, tighter fiscal controls, and improvements to infrastructure, including the construction of four new schools. The large comprehensive high schools were reorganized into smaller academies within the buildings—Shafer is described as a driving force in establishing those academies—and graduation rates improved. 

Paterson’s four-year high school graduation rate for 2017 was 87.8 percent, according to state data. That’s just below the statewide average of 90.5 percent—and a significant jump from 2009, when Paterson’s rate was 45.6 percent.

Overall, the Paterson schools, where more than 80 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged and almost all qualify for free lunch, still fall far short of other important state benchmarks. The data for 2018 indicates some progress on standardized tests, including increased proficiency in math and language arts for grades 3-8, and in language arts for grades 10–11. 

“It’s pretty clear that these takeovers do not produce the gains that one thinks they will produce,” says Domingo Morel, an assistant professor at Rutgers University and author of Takeover: Race, Education, and American Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2018). 

Money is one problem. Shafer says Paterson lost $280 million in funding during the Christie administration. “What that meant was 526 staff members were released over eight years,” she says. “Your class sizes go up, and you lose out when it comes to instruction.”

After a string of superintendents who rode into town with fancy résumés, Shafer is a different type of leader.  She is single and grew up in Belleville,  the daughter of a firefighter. She earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education and health education at Montclair State University and a master’s in education at Pennsylvania’s Slippery Rock University. 

Being a white superintendent in a mostly minority district has not been an issue, Shafer says.  “What people say is, ‘She cares.’ That’s all they want for their kids,” she says. “I spent my first year meeting with parents. Every disgruntled parent sat in this room—every one of them. I spent hours with my staff trying to solve their problems.” 

Scott, the parent leader, says that counted. “I trust the people that have the ability to do the job, as opposed to what a person looks like,” says Scott, who is African-American and works in law enforcement. “I trust my child and my child’s education with Ms. Shafer.”

Shafer’s entire career in Paterson has unfolded under state control. She joined the district in 1992 as a supervisor of substance-abuse awareness, after working as a physical education teacher in Orange. Over the years, she served in a number of administrative jobs, including deputy superintendent and assistant superintendent of personnel services. She also taught health at the Adult School in Paterson. 

Those years on the back bench, attending countless community and parent meetings, earned Shafer a measure of credibility in Paterson. 

“You don’t have to explain to her where Riverside is. It’s refreshing,” says John McEntee, Jr., referring to the city’s northernmost neighborhood. McEntee is head of the city’s 3,500-member teachers union. “She was the underdog. She had to prove herself again and again. The folks of Paterson like an underdog.”

Carlomagno Ontaneda, coordinator of a pre-college science and math program at Passaic County Community College, says Shafer has worked with him to bring Paterson students into his program’s more challenging classes. 

“It’s, ‘Let’s meet, let’s resolve this, let’s execute, let’s deliver,’” Ontaneda says of Shafer’s style.  In fact, getting more high school students into college-level classes is a major goal of Shafer’s, and the district is partnering with local colleges to make that happen.

She also plans to use a federal Full Service Community Grant to expand the district’s program of community-resource centers, schools that are open into the evenings to provide a host of health and social services. There are now seven such schools in the district. Food-services programs, which provide breakfast and lunch to most students, and dinner to some in after-school programs, are provided with the help of other grant programs. 

Buoyed by a $20 million increase in state aid, provided by the Murphy administration, Paterson is adding more Advanced Placement classes, and a $3 million initiative will provide Chromebook laptops for every student over a three-year period.

Shafer is acutely aware of the challenges faced by Paterson’s students.  Many come from economically strained, single-parent families, some facing health issues. Even simple childhood pleasures like riding a bike after school are out of reach in some neighborhoods because of safety concerns. In recent years, two girls, ages 12 and 14, have been shot to death on the streets, caught in the crossfire of local shootings.

“They can’t go outside, they can’t get fresh air, they can’t play. It’s tough for them,” Shafer says. 

“I want to make their lives better,” she continues, noting that she is part of a larger team of administrators, educators, support staff, parents and board members. “We chip away at it. I tell people it’s like turning the Queen Mary in the Hudson River. It’s going to take time.” 

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