HILLSIDE, NJ — Many dignitaries attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the new Hillside Innovation Academy on Thursday, Sept. 23, starting with Gov. Phil Murphy, who was the honored guest. Murphy was joined by state Assemblyman Jamel Holley, Kean University President Lamont Repollet, state Sen. Nicholas P. Scutari and state Sen. Joseph Cryan, among others.
“Today, we are having a ribbon-cutting for the opening of our new Hillside Innovation Academy, which focuses on our seventh- and eighth-grade students,” Hillside Board of Education President Kimberly Cook said on Thursday, Sept. 23. “This is a wonderful thing to happen, as I have been a Hillside resident for over 49 years and it’s my hometown. To be able to open an additional school for our students.… It’s a great feeling to be able to give back to my community as well.
“We could not have done this project without the help of Gov. Murphy and his office, the funding,” she continued. “I always say it takes a village for us to grow, and that village is not just Hillside, it’s on so many levels. So we thank Gov. Murphy, Sen. Cryan — it’s all the wonderful people who came out to support us, because they’ve been supportive from day one. It means a lot.”
Anthony Salters, the project’s lead consultant, said that, in 2019, Hillside had started losing a lot of students in the sixth grade, so it was decided a stronger, more rigorous curriculum was needed for the students. Salters was named lead consultant for the project and proceeded to formulate the budget, do the planning and set up the curriculum for the culmination of all that work.
“This is now a reality. The school was already in place, and this was the central headquarters, but we relocated the central office staff and we occupied both buildings here,” said Salters on Thursday, Sept. 23. “We’re honored to have Gov. Murphy here as a guest. Positive things in Hillside go on all the time, but sometimes, it doesn’t get the coverage. But this is just a wonderful day for our staff, students, board members, administration and also the parents and guardians. It’s very uplifting.”
Murphy allocated $2.4 million for the Hillside Innovation Academy the first year. He mentioned the importance of all students to think of their school as a second home.
“It’s an incredible honor to be with you all today. Today is a great day for Hillside and especially for the students,” Murphy said during his speech on Thursday, Sept. 23. “One of the things I am proudest of is that, working with guys like Joe Cryan and Nick Scutari and colleagues, and with educational leaders across the state, we have returned New Jersey to where we knew it deserves to be, which is the nation’s No. 1 state for public education. But as great as that title is to hold, we know that we must ensure that every school and every student finds a home under that banner. It’s not enough that some of our districts are great; we want every district to achieve that success.”
Hillside Innovation Academy eighth-grade student Saja Bembry then welcomed everyone with a moving address, explaining why she chose to attend the school.
“Today’s a special day, because it represents the opening of our new school, Hillside Innovation Academy,” Bembry said. “I chose to apply to the Hillside Innovation Academy because the school is designed to provide me with a challenging academic program that will prepare me for high school and college. But the environment at Hillside Innovation Academy has been very welcoming. We are forming close friendships and getting more assistance from our teachers.
“Here at Hillside Innovation Academy, it feels like an extension of my family, because it has fewer students than other schools. The teachers are wonderful, because they know their content, they make it fun and engaging, and really take the time to get to know what I need as a student,” she continued. “Our teachers and principal stress the importance of education. Our teachers challenge us. They don’t just accept our answers, but they want to know why and explain ourselves further. This is the critical thinking and articulation of ideas that is required of us in each of our passions. Education is important to me because I learn new things, which gives me the opportunity to grow and develop new skills.”
Afterward, Hillside Innovation Academy Principal Nicole Gilmore-Silva said the ribbon-cutting ceremony was exciting and signified the beginning of a new start for Hillside public schools.
“We’re offering our seventh- and eighth-grade students a choice,” said Gilmore-Silva on Thursday, Sept. 23. “We provide a rich and rigorous academic program. We’re going to expose our scholars to some outside learning experiences that will really provide them with cultural experiences and captivate their interest in different careers and hopefully technology and STEM.
“It’s truly exciting to have so many dignitaries here, even President Repollet of Kean University,” she continued. “He came to my former school district, so it’s really exciting to have the governor and high political parties representing what we want them to see, which is the good things that are happening in Hillside public schools and the good things that are happening here at Hillside Innovation Academy. It’s truly an honor.”
Cryan said he was there to celebrate the opening of the school because it provides new opportunities for generations of Hillside students.
“I’m very much looking forward to the promise of the future that starts today,” said the senator on Thursday, Sept. 23. “Having the governor here is a big deal, and today’s ceremony, which also included the president of Kean University and Sen. Scutari as well, showed the importance of education, the values of education.…
“The governor, he didn’t need directions; he’s been here numerous times,” continued Cryan. “This is another investment in Hillside. Whether it’s on Route 22 and construction and education, the governor is committed to Hillside, and it’s been a pleasure to be a partner with him, as we continue to look forward to new generations having opportunities.”
Hillside Superintendent of Schools Erskine Glover said this had been a dream that had begun well before his tenure, to give local students another opportunity to show their skill sets.
“Hillside Innovation Academy — the name ‘Innovation’ — is about launching our students, so they’re ready for the next level of success,” said Glover on Thursday, Sept. 23.
“Anytime our students get a chance to be in the forefront and be a part of the conversation, that’s what we’re here doing it for,” he continued. “It’s not about me as superintendent. I’m blessed to be in this chair, but it’s about those students. We have some great scholars, and I’m excited for what they’re about to do and how they’re about to put Hillside on the map.”
Photos by EmilyAnn Jackman