Students, parents rally to save Hillside principal’s job

Photo by Liv Meier
The gallery at the Dec. 20 Hillside school board meeting cheers after Superintendent Antoine Gayles announces the item to transfer high school principal Christine Sidwa was being removed from the agenda.

HILLSIDE, NJ — Students and parents cheered and applauded immediately after Superintendent Antoine Gayles announced that Christine Sidwa would be keeping her position as the Hillside High School principal.

The announcement and reaction at the Dec. 20 Hillside Board of Education meeting came in response to the decision to withdraw an agenda item that would have transferred Sidwa to another office in the district for unspecified reasons.
The agenda item read that she would be transferred “to Principal on Special Assignment: Pupil Performance, Achievement & Accountability Officer effective January 31, 2019.”

Among the students, parents and others who rallied around Sidwa were senior James Williams and his father. Two years ago, the younger Williams was in the intensive care unit with extremely low blood pressure, and his father thanked Sidwa for visiting his son while he was in the hospital.

“While he was there, she came to the hospital and prayed with us. She sat with us and reached out to us,” he said. “You don’t see a lot of principals doing that. This lady just loves what she does.”

After a few other speakers, the younger Williams spoke about how Sidwa encouraged him to pursue his music.
“I was always shy to play and sing in front of people, but Mrs. Sidwa always encouraged me and pushed me to do it,” he said.
Williams is a gospel singer and guitarist who played in front of television game show host Steve Harvey during the past summer.
“Because of her encouragement, I was able to go all the way to Atlanta, Ga., to pursue a dream of mine,” he continued. “I can’t thank her enough.”

Senior Summer Johnson also spoke of her longtime relationship with Sidwa.
“Students like me who have known Sidwa since (George Washington Elementary) know that she has been there for us when our family wasn’t there for us. She was there when we scraped our knee and when we first learned to say the alphabet,” she said. “Someone new won’t understand the students like she does.”

“We understand that you have a side of the story, just like we have a side of the story, but you don’t understand our voice,” Johnson continued.

She pleaded for the board to consider the negative impact on students if Sidwa were to be transferred.
Sophomore Marissa Wade credited Sidwa with helping her improving her grades and thanked her for being an inspiration.
“Today, I stand here proud because last year Mrs. Sidwa was the one who picked me up when I needed it and now, I have all my As and Bs,” Wade said. “I feel like you’re making a mistake if you try to get rid of her, Dr. Gayles. She’s just a very inspirational person.”

Grace Conway, former Hillside director of curriculum and instruction, read a letter on behalf of Frank Deo, the district’s former superintendent.

“Several years ago, Hillside High School had the potential to be in a crisis due to a sudden and unanticipated change of administrative leadership. The situation required the appointment of a principal that would take their leadership and continue to provide a safe, academic and secure environment. Mrs. Sidwa did competently just that,” Deo’s letter read.

It went on to remind the board that all employees are entitled to fair treatment and dignity as the board make decisions regarding their employment.

With time for public comment dwindling, Gayles announced that the item regarding Sidwa was being pulled from the agenda.
“I could not have been prouder with how you conducted yourselves during the sit-in,” Gayles said, referring a protest by some students earlier during the school day. “Before this meeting started, I talked with Mrs. Sidwa and board members and I’m recommending that the motion be pulled.”

“The reason why we still went forward with the public comments was because we wanted to respect your right to express your thoughts for Mrs. Sidwa,” Gayles continued after the cheering subsided.

On behalf of the board, president Hawaiian Thompson-Epps expressed that public’s support for Sidwa was recognized that night.
Before the end of the school day, a number of students lined the hallways during the last class period in a show of solidarity that they wanted their principal to remain.

Sidwa said was moved to tears when she walked down the halls and mentioned that the minute she stepped out of her office, the students starting chanting her name.

“I’ve always said that if you make a difference in one person’s life than your life is worth it,” she said in a phone interview on Dec. 21. “I never even realized that I made a difference in all of these kids’ lives until I saw their love and support.”
Students and faculty also adorned the school’s marquee with “Mrs. Sidwa Rocks” the morning after the board meeting.
The number of people attending the meeting exceeded Sidwa’s expectations.

“Truthfully, I didn’t really expect anyone to show because people always say they are going to show up but sometimes don’t,” she said. “I think it validates that I must be doing a good job.”

When asked directly about the transfer, Sidwa offered only that it was unexpected, saying she wasn’t aware of it until someone from the community alerted her that the board was looking to fill her position.
The job posting was taken off the district website before the BOE meeting.

Sidwa has been in the district for almost 35 years. She started her career in Hillside in 1985 when she landed began teaching math at George Washington Elementary School. After various other jobs in the district, she became principal of the high school in 2013.

“Hillside is my home, you know?” she said. “I’m rooted in this district and in this community.”
She applauded Gayles for his decision to listen to the students.

“We’re not in this profession for ourselves,” she stated. “We’re in this profession for the kids. It should always be about the kids in Hillside.”

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