Nicholas Rodriguez on stage with students at Public School No. 15

Paterson’s Promise

By Staff Writers Marilyn Lehren and Sylvia Martinez. Photos by University Photographer Mike Peters.

After school at Paterson’s Public School No. 15, in a neighborhood facing challenges, its community service programming is in full swing, with classes in the performing arts presented as a means to boost student achievement. Nicholas Rodriguez, the executive artistic director of Inner City Ensemble, leads elementary students in stillness, mindfulness, movement and more. The uniform-clad group of students mimic his moves, then dance through their routine as he plays Santana’s “Smooth.”

A Juilliard-trained dancer and choreographer, Rodriguez got his start with this same ensemble in his hometown of Paterson, dancing with his older brother in the group’s first performance. He’s come full circle, now running the arts nonprofit that ignited his passion for dance and provides free training and performing opportunities for underserved youths in Paterson.

Rodriguez is one of many who believe – despite its deep struggles – in Paterson’s promise. There is profound pride and a deep reservoir of hope among the city’s community activists, 110 nonprofits and volunteers that outcomes can be better, that streets can be safer, and fewer lives can be lost to addiction and gun violence.

In the year since Montclair State University announced a $1 million grant for a collective impact project called “One Square Mile,” focused on transforming New Jersey’s third-largest and one of its poorest cities, that hope has been renewed by movement to collaboratively advance racial justice and equity, improve health and foster student achievement.

President Koppell speaking to people gathered in a ballroom

Montclair President Jonathan Koppell addresses the One Square Mile advisory committee in October at The Brownstone in Paterson. The initiative is one of scores of projects in which the University and community collaborate to find solutions to pressing issues.

Funding from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation is going toward a new full-service community school at Eastside High School, offering English classes for adults and classes in the creative arts to teens. Four nonprofit organizations – with missions to help the homeless, address substance use, provide free meals to families, and help kids express themselves through dance and arts programming – have also received a slice of the Dodge Foundation funding.

This is just the beginning of a shared vision between the University and city advocates and leaders, one that aims to revitalize a concentrated area of the city. The One Square Mile initiative is engaged in finding community-driven solutions to the city’s crises.

Montclair is in it for the long term, says University President Jonathan Koppell, speaking in October at a meeting of the advisory group. “I don’t view this as a one-year project or a two-year project. I view this as a decades-long placement, where we together start to understand the ingredients of transformation on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis.”

Montclair Justice Studies Associate Professor Jason Williams, a scholar-activist who examines the experiences of young Black men with the American criminal justice system, adds: “When we think about the K-12 school system, when we think about the criminal legal system, when we think about substance use disorder, Paterson has great, great needs. The city has been abandoned for so long. I think the urgency requires that we focus on the city.”

the Great Falls of the Passaic River in Paterson, NJ

Alexander Hamilton chose the Great Falls of the Passaic River for America’s first planned industrial center. The site once powered the machines turning out steam locomotives, Colt revolvers and aircraft engines. By the end of the 19th century, the silk industry had earned Paterson its nickname, “Silk City.”

University’s Commitment

students wearing construction helmets, carrying a wood beam with rope hoists

Montclair students lend helping hands to a Habitat for Humanity project in Paterson during a day of service marking the opening of the fall 2023 semester.

The University has long been present in Paterson. Williams, for instance, works within the community addressing harm reduction and criminal justice reforms. In the public schools, Montclair faculty support teachers and school leaders in the district’s multicultural classrooms. The University’s Upward Bound staff prepare Paterson high schoolers for college. Robert Reid and Pauline Garcia-Reid – both Family Science and Human Development professors – collaborate on the Communities Organizing for Prevention and Empowerment or C.O.P.E. Initiative, with Montclair students assisting in classes aimed at preventing substance misuse and the spread of HIV among African American and Latino youths.

The University’s growing partnership also includes the revival of Hinchliffe Stadium, one of America’s last remaining Negro League ballparks, which sits next to the iconic Great Falls of the Passaic River. Montclair alumnus and Paterson native Chuck Muth ’77 and his wife, Laura, made a transformational $5 million gift that allows the University to partner in the creation and operation of a museum to tell the story of the league and the integration of baseball.

“The opportunity to work alongside Montclair State University on the stadium revitalization project presented a terrific way for me to give back in a meaningful way to the city that played such a pivotal and inspiring role in helping to build my personal foundation and launch a successful career in business,” Muth said when announcing the gift for the museum that will also serve as a community hub.

group of people pose with hands in

BAW Development CEO Baye Adolfo-Wilson, now retired Paterson Public Schools Superintendent Eileen F. Shafer, Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh, donor Chuck Muth ’77 and Montclair President Jonathan Koppell at a press conference announcing the partnership to create the Charles J. Muth Museum of Hinchliffe Stadium. Sayegh said the city appreciates the partnership “to help make history again.

Paterson/On the Rise

Paterson has become such a focus for the University that last spring, Montclair’s student journalists examined its crucial issues and its evolution from a storied manufacturer of silks and other textiles to a post-industrial city challenged by drugs, crime and unemployment.

“Unless you live in New Jersey, you wouldn’t know the importance Paterson had on the industrial revolution; the impact it had on film, television and radio; different cultural groups coming to the United States and how it’s a hub for Arabic and Muslim cultures throughout the entire eastern United States,” says Francis Churchill ’23, who served as senior producer for the Montclair News Lab special titled Paterson/On The Rise.

a person leans over a chain link fence in front of a bright green wall bearing the text "Peace with God in Jesus Christ"

Student journalists looked at the troubles that confront Paterson, and the partnerships being formed to find solutions to pressing problems. The report was overseen by Professor Steve McCarthy, a network TV news veteran and Emmy Award-winning producer. (Photo courtesy of Montclair News Lab)

Students spent time in the community to gain trust and to get the perspective on the city’s problems from people who live there, including those who face homelessness, substance use challenges and food insecurity, as well as from the advocates, volunteers and activists who are trying to make a difference.

“When you hear about Paterson, you hear about the bad stuff, but the work I did, I saw so many organizations that are really putting in a lot of hard work into making it a better place,” says George Valdes ’23, a multimedia journalist.

Endless Possibilities

Among those who understand the potential – and challenges – in Paterson is Aracelis Ruiz, whose family moved from the Dominican Republic to Silk City when she was a child. She attended Paterson Public Schools, becoming the first in her family to earn a high school diploma and eventually a college degree.

Ruiz was teaching Sunday school when she learned her father was caught in crossfire that left him and two other men shot and wounded in June 2022, victims in a long list of gun violence statistics.

“A lot of people may be numb to these things happening,” Ruiz says, “but it’s not normal for any of us, and it shouldn’t be.”

Ruiz is committed to helping create better lives for Patersonians. Years of volunteer work with her Paterson church, Vida Nueva, and more recently as a neighborhood revitalization specialist for Passaic County Habitat for Humanity, have shaped her views about the interconnectedness of education, housing, crime, drugs, food insecurity – and how the connections among engaged partners can drive meaningful impact.

Recently, she was hired as One Square Mile project manager to coordinate the University’s role as “the convener and anchor institution that provides support and resources” with the various partners involved in social justice, social public health and education.

“It’s collaborative, so to get to dig in and bring forth that change in the community, that’s exciting,” Ruiz says. “Think of the possibilities. The possibilities are endless.”

Nonprofits Get a Boost

With Dodge Foundation funding secured by the University, Paterson was able to open its 11th full-service community school at Eastside High School. The program is organized around helping students succeed in school and life, and offers creative classes in writing, dance and drama. Montclair will assist with college and career readiness workshops.

Teacher speaking to 2 adult students at a table

Montclair Instructor Alice Wright teaches English as a new language to adults as part of the new full-service community school at Eastside High School.

Eastside’s full-service community school also offers English classes for adults. More than 60% of Paterson’s residents speak a language other than English, according to the U.S. Census. The University is now assessing data from a 10-week pilot program coordinated by Ruiz and taught by a Montclair ESL-certified instructor to create sustainable, long-term, English-as-a-new-language programs for Spanish- and Arabic-speaking residents. ESL students are tutored by Montclair students, including Bonner Leaders, Latin American Student Organization members and others.

“Our students love to connect the theory to practice to see what it’s like to do this work out in the real world. They get excited about it and that excitement also gets transferred to the community. I think it’s a great marriage,” says Bryan Murdock, associate vice president for Community Partnerships.

Black Lives Matter Paterson, St. Paul’s Community Development Center, Calvary Baptist Community Center and Inner City Ensemble also received funding as part of the first group to benefit from the One Square Mile initiative.

exterior photo of St. Paul’s Community Development Center in Paterson

St. Paul’s Community Development Center operates a food pantry, among many other programs, and works in two full-service community schools in Paterson to provide food for families experiencing food insecurity.

Women filling out a form

At Public School No. 5, families pick up the free meals provided by St. Paul’s Community Development Center.

Tough issues are being addressed, including working to overcome hunger in the city. Addressing struggles with food insecurity, St. Paul’s Community Development Center provides free meals at two full-service community schools in Paterson. Its share of Dodge Foundation money will cover the costs of a strategic planning process, updating its website and creating a promotional video to help tell its story.

The University is also assisting with the nonprofit’s Breaking the Cycle program, which helps formerly incarcerated men with job training to secure culinary arts or OSHA construction safety certification. Montclair faculty will examine its program design, data collection and other reentry work.

The Inner City Ensemble is hiring a part-time administrator to help with board development and grant writing so that it may continue its work in the arts addressing cultural identity, belonging, and social justice and reform issues.

students rehearsing on stage in a theater

At Public School No. 15, elementary students rehearse the routine they’ve been working on as part of an after-school program presented by Inner City Ensemble. When not on stage, the bilingual students work on English, math and homework assignments.

Calvary Baptist Community Center operates a preschool and hosts vaccination clinics, among other services. The nonprofit will use its portion of the Dodge Foundation grant to enhance technology.

Black Lives Matter Paterson will purchase a van to provide harm reduction supplies and services, including educational materials, throughout the city’s Fourth Ward.

Harm Reduction, a project of Social Work and Social Justice

The opioid epidemic and substance abuse in Paterson manifests in overdose fatalities that are among the nation’s highest. With additional support from the Open Society Foundations and Vital Strategies, Montclair has harnessed the resources of its Social Work and Justice Studies programs to provide critical harm reduction awareness, education and training to community and faith-based leaders who are at the front line of the epidemic.

Professor Jason Williams and Brenda “Bre” Azanedo talking on a sidewalk

Taking his work out into the community, Professor Jason Williams meets with Brenda “Bre” Azanedo, project manager of the Black Lives Matter Paterson Harm Reduction Center, which supports Paterson residents battling addiction. The outreach includes distributing items such as naloxone to reverse an opioid overdose and other harm reduction supplies to the community.

“At this moment, a lot of it is about building connections and talking with people on the ground,” says Williams, the social justice professor and scholar-activist. This includes collaborating with community members, policymakers and elected officials, and partnering with the Passaic County Department of Health and community-based organizations on substance abuse programming.

“We’ve been educating the community about what substance use disorders are and then what steps we need to take as a collective to ameliorate some of these bad policies that are on the books,” Williams says.

Funding from Vital Strategies helped Social Work and Child Advocacy Professor Svetlana Shpiegel launch this past fall an online graduate-level certificate titled “Harm Reduction Approaches to Substance Use.” This is the nation’s first program designed to certify students and professionals in the practices and principles of harm reduction strategies (see story).

Shpiegel also completed a needs assessment in Paterson, looking for gaps in harm reduction services based on indicators such as overdose deaths, where the services are located and where the need is. The work, conducted with the University’s Center for Research and Evaluation on Education and Human Services, included qualitative interviews with key stakeholders, focus groups, surveys and GIS mapping.

Montclair assisted Black Lives Matter Paterson in drafting a grant proposal for additional state funding for the city’s first harm reduction center, which opened on Broadway Street earlier this year.

In Schools, ‘Adjusting the Sails of the Ship’

Three years ago, the Montclair State University Network for Educational Renewal launched an equity-oriented leadership professional learning series. This program met with all district and school leaders to discuss issues of implicit bias, anti-racist leadership, inclusivity and academic achievement throughout the school year.

The results are promising. “What we have seen in the walk-throughs is a lot more attention to detail as it relates to equity,” says Educational Leadership Assistant Professor Patricia Virella. This includes more visual aids in multiple languages, more teachers speaking native languages to children, more adults having difficult conversations about race and equity, as well as equity-focused instruction that allows for critical thinking.

Laurie W. Newell at a table with Bryan Murdock

The new Superintendent of the Paterson Public Schools Laurie W. Newell, who has taught at Montclair, is partnering with University administrators and faculty who work with youths and in the schools. Newell, shown here with Associate Vice President for Community Partnerships Bryan Murdock, says she welcomes Montclair’s collaboration.

“When we think about the work of equity leadership, it really is about how do you get the leaders to adjust the sails of the ship to meet the needs of the particular demographics that they have in their building,” Virella says.

Associate Professor Fernando Naiditch is part of a team of faculty assessing the needs of teachers in classrooms with linguistic diversity. Students in Paterson speak languages that crisscross the globe: Spanish, Arabic, Turkish, Bengali, French, Russian – nearly 50 different languages in all.

Recently he led professional development with the district’s teachers on promoting learning in multilingual classrooms, sharing with them best practices for students learning English as a new language. “My aim is to support teachers with the skills and knowledge needed to be successful with culturally and linguistically diverse student populations,” Naiditch says.

Adds Montclair alumna and Paterson Public Schools Acting Assistant Superintendent Nahed Badawy ’08 MAT, ’14 MEd: “I like to be challenged and Paterson is challenging, but in a positive way. When you achieve success in Paterson, you feel so good. It’s the ultimate reward because you make a difference in people’s lives.”