“Hello, my name is Steve. What’s yours?” Mayor Steve Fulop asked on the second part of two-hour visit to Golden Door Charter School on March 4.
First grade students lined up to greet the mayor, each gripping a letter they had written in gratitude for help he and the city has provided the school.
“For them, meeting the mayor is like meeting the president of the United States,” said Brian Stiles, chief academic officer of the school.
Fulop had just come from another room in the school where he had read to about 40 attentive fourth graders as part of National Read Across America program.
“Mayor Fulop is the first mayor since we opened to read to our children,” Stiles said. “Other mayors have toured our school, but he’s the first to read to them.”
The Golden Door Charter School was founded in 1998 as one of Jersey City’s first charter schools, with the support of then Mayor Bret Schundler. Located on Kennedy Boulevard in the old St. John’s School, the facility serves about 500 students from kindergarten to eighth grade.
Fulop did more than read; he talked to the students about their favorite books, about what they liked, and about the history of Jersey City.
“Mayor Fulop is the first mayor since we opened to read to our children.” – Brian Stiles
Holding up the book for the kids to see each illustration, Fulop read, then paused to explain, sometimes asking students about Ellis Island or the statue before going on.
The fourth graders, wearing purple school uniform shirts, knew many of the answers, so they raised their hands often as if Fulop was their teacher – and in that brief time, he was.
Then he asked them where the Statue of Liberty was. He received a few puzzled looks from the students, and then one answered New York Harbor. This drew a wry smile from Fulop.
“The Statue is in Jersey City,” he said. “But I won’t go into that right now.”
He meant, of course, the century old dispute between New York and New Jersey, each of which claimed the bragging rights for the statue.
But the school name, he noted, evolved out of that same history since Jersey City was nicknamed “The Golden Door to America” because it was the gateway to a new life for millions of immigrants.
Fulop went beyond the book to talk about the history of the city, asking first about what transpired in various places here. He noted that the Bergen section of the city is not only one of the oldest communities in the state, but in the nation. He also talked about the part Paulus Hook played in the American Revolution. He spoke about Gen. George Washington, and asked students what happened on July 4, 1776.
The Statue, a gift from France, was officially unveiled as a tribute to American Freedom and independence, ideas that Fulop’s brief talk touched upon.
A day for reading
Read Across America began in New Jersey with a New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) member who organized a "birthday bash" to honor Dr. Seuss – perhaps the most famous children’s’ author in the world. The National Education Association picked up the idea. With the support of the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association — and celebrities from the worlds of sports, entertainment, politics and publishing — Read Across America has become a national event.
While many schools bring in people to read some of Dr. Seuss’ books – he authored more than 50 children's books before his death in 1991 – some schools such as Golden Door tie the reading into lessons currently being taught.
The students all had their favorite Dr. Seuss book such as “The Cat in the Hat,” “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” and “Green Eggs and Ham.”
The reading lesson was followed by a brief ceremony in which included the reading of the poem “The New Colossus,” written by Emma Lazarus, which is engraved in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty and the parade of first graders, which determined to give their letter of thanks to Mayor Fulop.
“My name is Steve,” Fulop said. “What’s yours? Did you write this letter? Yes, I’ll read it.”
And as each student walked away after meeting Fulop and shaking his hand, their faces glowed with a memory some will carry with them the rest of their lives.
Indeed, that’s part of the lesson, Stiles said. Having people like Fulop come in to read reinforces the education they receive in class.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.