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Vantage Point


Spirit of Readiness Transcends Tragedy

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When a fire destroyed James Monroe Elementary School in Edison, New Jersey, on Saturday, March 22, the community wasted no time in mobilizing a collective effort to ready new space for the 500 displaced students. 

Within 12 hours of the fire, Middlesex County College’s president, Joann La Perla-Morales, contacted the elementary school’s administrators, offering facilities on the college’s campus in Edison as possible temporary quarters. Two vacant buildings, slated for demolition in July, were quickly consigned for instant repurposing.

By Sunday afternoon, the school principal and others toured the proposed facilities and decided the space was adequate. Our executive director of facilities quickly mobilized his workforce to get started with the transformation, which resulted in classroom space that will accommodate the students for a few weeks—or perhaps until the school year’s end. The district is looking for other semipermanent space to be used while rebuilding the James Monroe Elementary school, a project that will be completed in approximately two years.

Many of the college’s employees spent three days preparing the space for students in grades ranging from kindergarten to fifth. Meanwhile, support poured in from the Emerson Township School District and around the state, including cash donations and school supplies. By Wednesday morning at 9:15, the 500 students began to arrive at Middlesex County College for their first day of school. 

Poised to Pitch in 

The college is no stranger to crisis. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the U.S. Public Health Service used Middlesex’s gymnasium, with only a couple hours’ notice, as a regional minihospital. Fortunately, as required by the State of New Jersey for all its higher education institutions, we’ve developed a comprehensive emergency/disaster plan, which we review on an ongoing basis. 

As we’ve planned for and reacted to crisis events, we realized that timely and accurate communication is crucial for an efficient and effective response. We use e-mail and text quite extensively; we also conduct tabletop drills in which we practice ways to communicate quickly. 

A large “welcome” sign greets James Monroe Elementary School students as they arrive at temporary quarters at Middlesex County College, after a fire destroyed their school.

As a designated disaster relief site for our county, the college is in continuous dialogue with the appropriate county offices. And, on an ongoing basis, members of the college’s cabinet frequently touch base about issues and events, particularly over the weekend and during holiday periods.

Keeping It Together

This spring, one of the school district’s top priorities was to keep all the students in one space, rather than splitting them up and sending them to various other middle schools. When James Monroe’s faculty administration and staff realized that the school “family” would be kept intact, they expressed absolute joy. We urged the parents to visit the school with their children prior to opening day, giving them an understanding of what was to come. 

We mounted in front of the two buildings a small, but important, reminder—the school’s sign—although the children get a kick out of saying they are attending college. 

Celebrating Solidarity

The finance area now plays an important support role, working with the principal, superintendent, food service operator, fire marshal, and other officials to cover the legal and operational details—and is coordinating with the district for insurance reimbursement. 

The college hosted a thank-you luncheon for the employees who did the heavy lifting: maintenance, facilities, custodial, and IT staff. We invited the elementary school’s principal and chief academic officer, along with county elected officials, members of the college’s board of trustees, the college president and cabinet, and the executive director of facilities. 

Together we watched a video of the community’s collective efforts, and expressed heartfelt and emotional gratitude for such energetic spirit during a time of such adversity. We noted also that even the code inspectors stayed on the job beyond their scheduled work days to assist us in the preparations! 

SUBMITTED BY Susan Perkins, vice president, finance and administration, Middlesex County College, Edison, New Jersey

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