EOF alumnus is helping to lead reform in New Jersey’s K–12 public schools

EOF alumnus is helping to lead reform in New Jersey’s K–12 public schools
Arcelio Aponte is in his second term as president of New Jersey State Board of Education.

As president of the New Jersey State Board of Education, Arcelio Aponte ’85 is at the center of a lively and sometimes contentious debate over the future of the state’s public schools, with tenure, teacher evaluations, school performance and curriculum standards all under active review.

It is a role he embraces.

“We are in a reform agenda,” says Aponte, who leads the 13-member panel that adopts the state’s education code, consults with the Commissioner of Education on proposed policies, and confirms high-level Department of Education appointments. “While the path may be debated, there is an agreement there should be transformative change.”

Last year, he noted, the board adopted the Common Core State Standards, rigorous national standards for language arts and math that are likely to prompt system-wide curriculum changes. More recently, board members approved a sweeping reorganization of the Department of Education oriented around a four-pronged reform agenda: implementing the new standards; measuring the progress of individual schools and demographic groups; recruiting and developing top talent, while creating a new system to evaluate teachers and administrators; identifying new programs and technologies to boost educational progress, particularly in low-performing districts.

“My role as president of the board is to work with board members to really focus in on issues and stay away from politics. We have different perspectives, but at the end of the day we must work together to move public education forward,” Aponte says.

Board members work closely with Acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf to shape the reform agenda, he notes, serving on task forces created to implement change in areas such as recruitment and evaluation, for example.

But he emphasizes that it is also his job to keep the focus on longstanding educational challenges. Appointed to the board in 2005, Aponte, a product of Newark public schools and an Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) student at TCNJ, said his primary mission was “to ensure a high quality education for all students, improve access and equity, and to close the achievement gap between Hispanics and blacks and white students.”

“New Jersey is a model for the country in aggregate, but when you unpack the numbers you find significant disparities in access and achievement,” he notes. “So we’re looking at strategies to improve outcomes in districts that have struggled historically, while acknowledging there is no magic bullet. We are exploring models that have worked elsewhere, for example, and seeing if we can customize them.”

Just re-elected to a second term as president, Aponte says he will aggressively solicit input from professionals in diverse sectors, such as Michael Nettles, senior vice president of the Educational Testing Service’s Policy Evaluation and Research Center, who leads the board’s task force on closing the achievement gap.

“We’re bringing in the heaviest weights we can, including corporate leaders, and asking them to volunteer their time and talents,” he said.

While Aponte graduated with a degree in electrical engineering, he has spent much of his working life in higher education, managing operations and campus development. He was the director of facilities for four years at TCNJ, assisting with the college’s transition from Trenton State College, and then spent 10 years at New Jersey City University as it evolved from Jersey City State College.

He notes that his current job, as director of operations and management for the city of Newark’s Department of Economic Development, also informs his work on the board, where he oversees adult education.

The people seeking training and counseling through Newark’s workforce development programs are “often products of a failing school system,” he observes, adding that the experience has redoubled his determination to oversee yet another crucial transformation.

“I want to see the K–12 system of education give rise to K–20,” he says. “We need to determine how best to align curriculum requirements so they dovetail with the higher education system. Our students need to be career and college ready.”

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