Appointed by the state Board of Education from a final list of three candidates, Charles T. Epps Jr., most recently the associate superintendent for community affairs and support services, will take the reins this Tuesday. He replaces Richard A. DiPatri, who will leave Jersey City for Brevard County, Fla.
"I'm going to work endless days and endless nights," Epps said at a press conference announcing his appointment last week. He will command a district of about 32,000 students, roughly three-quarters of whom are black and Latino. It is the second largest school district in the state.
Epps resolved to sit down with the teachers' union and the Board of Education, two bodies that had been riled over the appointment of Catherine Coyle, an associate superintendent who had left the district this spring, only to be reappointed by DiPatri in July to a similar position. Some teachers and the local union had been upset over Coyle's approach to evaluations, which they claim was harsh and prompted an exodus of teachers from the city. DiPatri, however, defended Coyle and the appointment.
"Is she tough?" said DiPatri in an earlier interview. "Yes. Does she hold people accountable? Yes."
The head of the Jersey City Education Association has disagreed with Epps in the past, but said he hopes to work closely with him.
"He's local, he's through the system, he knows the kids, he knows where No. 5 school is..." said Tom Favia. "I think he does have the wherewithal to communicate with the staff, which is what Dr. DiPatri didn't do."
Epps contrasted his approach to DiPatri's.
"My predecessor's style is different from my style," said Epps. "Dr. DiPatri is more autocratic and mine is more participatory." Nonetheless, he said, he hoped to get comparable results to DiPatri.
Epps, who beat out colleague and Associate Superintendent Francis Dooley, along with California educator Linda Gonzales for the position, said he is looking to improve student performance, raise student attendance and reduce the dropout rate in the schools.
A graduate of Rutgers University with a doctorate in education, Epps began his teaching career in Texas, but in 1967 returned to his native Jersey City. He has remained ever since, rising to a supervisory position in mathematics in 1977 and then to principal of adult education in 1993.
Epps continues in his father's tradition. The senior Epps was Principal at Lincoln High School. "Dr. Epps is not only an outstanding educator," said state Board of Education Commissioner David Hespe in a press release, "but a man who has spent over three decades energizing the community to improve both programs and student outcomes in the district."
Epps will get some help. Frank Sinatra, himself a former state-appointed superintendent, will serve as Epps' mentor for the first year. Sinatra also served as mentor to DiPatri.
For parents whose children began school last week, crowding and the resulting lack of one-on-one between teachers and students is a concern.
"We need the ability to help children who are being lost," said Nicole Orji, a Woodlawn Avenue resident and mother of three.
Orji took her child out of P.S. 38, a school she still regards as one of the best in the city, and put her in Beacon Christian Academy in Bayonne.
Another daughter, she said, had a classmate who could not read.
"If a seventh grader is unable to read, what is he doing there?" Orji asked.
Epps has worked to establish new programs in the city, including Project PREP (Programs to Recruit and Empower Parents), an effort to bolster parental involvement in the schools.
"I would like to involve the administrators, the teachers, the parents, the students and the community in a citywide effort to educate our children," said Epps in a press release. "They are our most important priority. This will always come first."
Board member William DeRosa applauded the appointment.
"The time is over for having people come from all over the state, build a resume and move on," he said.
Returning control to the city
The appointment of Epps comes with the city schools at a crossroads.
In 1989, the underperforming district became the first in the country to be taken over by a state. The previously elected school board was scuttled and a state-appointed superintendent was named. In the years that followed, the school board regained power, but to this day Trenton maintains authority over personnel matters, and has ultimate veto power over any board decision.
Now, the state and city are working to return control to the city. A transition team, comprised of former board members, city officials and prominent citizens will make a recommendation to the state sometime this fall.
When the state will extract itself from the city is another matter, but it may affect Epps' tenure with the city. If and when local control is returned, the school board would presumably decide whether to keep a state-appointed superintendent. Board members in the past had made it known that they preferred a local appointee, one they might consider keeping on after the state left.
Epps said his contract, two years with an option for a third, has a review and evaluation clause after the first year.
A spokeswoman for the state, however, said that details of the contract were still being ironed out and had not yet been finalized.
Nevertheless, Epps was upbeat.
"This has been a goal of mine for many years," he said.