Taking Helm of Columbia High School, Aaron Exults: ‘It’s All Here.’

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CHS Principal Elizabeth Aaron

CHS Principal Elizabeth Aaron

“We are very excited about this year,” said new Columbia High School Principal Elizabeth Aaron last week in her office.

Fewer than two months into her new job, Aaron already exudes the confidence of a seasoned veteran. During the course of an hour-long interview, she efficiently handled questions from staff members, assisted two students who needed help locating a teacher, posed for photos and finished a delayed bagel breakfast — all without breaking a sweat.

Her calm is in part due to the fact that for the first time in a while, CHS is beginning the school year with a complete set of assistant principals in place. “At Columbia High School, we have a full team,” said Aaron, referring to new hires Cheryl Hewitt and Charles Ezell, who will serve grades 10 and 9, respectively, Michael Healy, who will guide the junior class, and Dr. Jennifer Giordano, Director of Guidance and Counseling Services, will act as grade-level administrator for seniors.

Aaron joined Columbia High School as assistant principal in July of 2013. She came with a wealth of experience in secondary school education, including serving as a high school history teacher for more than a decade, teaching in both Asbury Park High School and Summit High School.

A graduate of Boston College, Aaron has a Master’s Degree in Educational Administration from Kean University, a Master’s in Teaching History from Rutgers University, and is a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at Rutgers University. She has two children in the school district, a rising 6th grader at South Orange Middle School and a 3rd grader at Clinton Elementary School.

(See Aaron’s full bio here.)

She began her career at Asbury Park fresh out of school and at the tender age of 21. “Throughout my career I’ve been very fortunate that people were willing to believe in me and my abilities,” said Aaron. Early on, she said, she was mentored by some highly skilled, veteran teachers.

In 2013, Aaron was planning on finishing her doctorate when she saw an ad for assistant principal at CHS. “I tried to talk myself out of [applying for] it, but I couldn’t think of any reason not to,” she said.

Shortly after beginning her job, she was surprised by the announcement that Principal Lovie Lilly was retiring. SOMSD administrator Kirk Smith served as interim principal in the 2013-14 school year, and Aaron was unanimously appointed to the role by the South Orange – Maplewood Board of Education in March of this year.

In recommending her to the board, then-Superintendent Brian Osborne called Aaron “a problem solver who connects positively with all stakeholders, especially our students.” He lauded her ability to work collaboratively with staff, parents, students, and the community “to make systemic improvements…that will strengthen curriculum and instruction, expand opportunities for students, increase equity and excellence in everything we do, and ensure that all graduates are fully prepared to have the choice to succeed in college without the need for remediation.”

Osborne announced he was leaving the district in July. “I’m disappointed I don’t get to work with Brian Osborne,” Aaron said. She noted that one of Osborne’s strengths was that he had multiple skill sets, and was comfortable with budgeting, public policy and the politics of education while also identifying with the mission of SOMSD schools.

As the district embarks on a search for a new superintendent, Aaron would love to see a candidate who has high school experience “or who will want to be in a high school, to understand the ecosystem.” She would also like someone who identifies with the community’s core values and is “passionate about access to high quality and nurturing education for all children.”

In what she called the “tricky” world of New Jersey education, Aaron said a new superintendent has to be strong and willing to “go to bat for teachers” and “defend and promote what makes strong schools.”

Meanwhile, in the year ahead, Aaron and her administrators are working to ensure strong academic support for incoming 9th graders by maximizing study hall time to help students adjust to a new work load and a new building. Students will be divided into smaller groups that will enable teachers to provide targeted support to help students improve their work and study habits.

This summer, she and her team piloted FAST (Flexible Academic Support Time), a new program to provide students with academic support in a wide range of areas. She said the response to the program was excellent, and “gave us a good read on what we might do” going forward.

On the horizon this year is the Middle States Self-Study Process, a comprehensive third-party accreditation process for K-12 schools, completed every 7-10 years. The process involves the input of a wide range of stakeholders, including teachers, students, parents and board members, who convene in large and small groups to discuss and evaluate different elements of the school.

The process is an opportunity for schools to ask themselves, “Where are you and where you would like to go,” said Aaron.  “I’m looking forward to seeing how [stakeholders] view CHS, what are our strengths and areas for growth,” she said.

In the meantime, Aaron is full of excitement and anticipation about the coming school year, and can’t wait for the students to arrive so the year can officially begin.

“It’s all here,” said Aaron, “everything important about public education is in this building, all the challenges and the remarkable kids and families.”


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