Photos by Al Sullivan
On the first day of school in September, Chris Gadsden, newly named principal of Lincoln High School, greeted students and parents like they were old friends.
In many cases, they were, because Gadsden had been serving as vice principal there since 2011.
More important, Gadsden grew up in the neighborhood, on Wilkerson Avenue between Ocean Avenue and Martin Luther King Drive.
The neighborhood, he said, has changed since he was growing up in the 1980s, and not for the better. While he also faced issues of drugs and violence, the family was still the core of the neighborhood; kids today lack some of the resources that allowed him to survive.
“Kids had more community to help them when I grew up,” Gadsden said. “Now, kids live more transient lives.”
That’s not to say that Gadsden had it easy. His biological father and uncles got into trouble.
Gadsden had to rely on his hardworking mother for guidance, and perhaps even more influential, his grandfather, a Jersey City police officer, who laid down the rules by which Gadsden lived.
“I was no angel by any means,” Gadsden said. “But I avoided a lot of things that hurt other people. My grandfather allowed me to focus. I also didn’t want to disappoint my mother, who worked various jobs in Jersey City and Newark. She worked so hard to raise us, I couldn’t let her down.”
Growing up in the era of crack presented Gadsden with temptations he struggled to avoid.
“We were poor, so the temptation was always there to make money,” he said.
Not only did he want to avoid jail, but his mother and grandfather made it clear that he needed to get an education and to get involved civically: “They told me it was important to remember where I came from.”
Where He Came From
Gadsden attended Public School No. 38 and then Snyder High School. But after high school, he didn’t have a clear picture of what he intended to do with his life.
“I just wanted to work,” he said.
Yet he also aspired to go to college, attending New Jersey City University.
“I was first in my family except for my grandfather; he went to Rutgers,” Gadsden said.
Gadsden had a vague idea that he might want to become a lawyer. He loved history and was inspired by teachers at Snyder that included current County Executive Tom DeGise. He also wanted to serve the public and have an impact on his neighborhood the way his grandfather had.
In 1995, Gadsden joined the newly created AmeriCorps, a voluntary civil society program for public-service work with the goal of helping others and meeting critical needs in the community.
At NJCU he studied political science but discovered he had a passion for teaching and went on to St. Peter’s University.
In 2001, he got a job with the Jersey City Public Schools, succeeding well enough to be named Teacher of the Year at Public School No. 12 for the 2002-2003 school year.
In 2011, then Jersey City Schools Superintendent Dr. Charles Epps tapped him to be vice principal at Lincoln High School.
“Last June, Dr. Lyles had enough confidence in me to make me principal,” Gadsden said. Dr. Marcia Lyles is the current Jersey City Schools Superintendent.
Most Likely to Succeed
Gadsden, who was briefly a councilman from Ward B, said, “We need to build the community. It is what shaped me.”
His goals involve making a difference in the lives of young people and their families.
Three years ago, Gadsden got involved with a program called Royal Men Foundation, which helps young people avoid jail.
“Too many people of color make up the prison population,” he said.
Many young people get entangled in the criminal justice system for minor offenses that put them on the wrong path.
“Being a principal puts me in a great position to help them,” Gadsden said, “providing kids with the tools they need to fend for themselves in the real world.”
Equally important is ensuring that kids can be kids and get a meaningful high-school experience.
“Most people don’t look back to the elementary school they went to, but they remember their high school,” Gadsden said. “It’s important to let them escape the ills of the world while they’re in high school so they can be kids. Part of my job is to create moments and memories for them.”
While there are no guarantees, Gadsden believes that the better educated his students are—if they’re given the knowhow to make decisions and take ownership of their lives—the better prepared they will be to face the world. The job of principal, Gadsden said, “allows me to affect kids’ lives every day, helping young people to become better people.”
Gadsden hopes to be a role model for his students, the way his grandfather was a role model for him.
“I want to use my life as an example,” Gadsden said. “Many kids do not have family structure. So we are building a community inside high school. This is the greatest job I’ve ever had.”—JCM