JAMESBURG – In March, a local elementary school principal received a prestigious honor when the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association named her the recipient of the 2019 New Jersey Visionary Leadership Award: Principal of the Year.
The award is given to a principal who uses innovation to help educate students and lead staff members that goes beyond the typical standards. As a result of being named visionary principal, John F. Kennedy Elementary School Principal Pamela Hernandez received $7,000 for her school – which is small portion of the amount of money she has brought to the district since starting five years ago.
“We are a culture of high expectations. We explain clearly what we expect from the students, their families and of ourselves, and going above and beyond in every way possible,” Hernandez said last week in an interview with MonroeNow.com. “When I first got here one of the main things that stood out to me was the culture and the climate. I don’t know that the teachers felt like they had direction. I don’t want to ever say anything bad about the previous principal … he seems like he was one of the nicest men in the world, but just the feel, it felt like the staff, the culture and climate needed some positivity.”
Hernandez was one of five children growing up in Cape May Court House, about 10 miles northwest of Wildwood. Her parents were not college-educated but education was an important part of her upbringing.
Hernandez is the only one in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree. Her sister went to a two-year program. Hernandez earned her undergrad and graduate degrees from Rowen University and her post master’s degree from the College of New Jersey.
“I did not come from a family of educators. But my mother is really special,” Hernandez said. “My mother was always saying ‘no one can ever take your education away from you.’”
Hernandez channeled her mother’s words into a career where she can now shape how her students learn and her staff members teach.
After spending more than two decades in Hamilton and Lawrence in roles as a teacher, supervisor and principal, Hernandez joined the Jamesburg Public School District five years ago. The principal role at JFK, she said, was attractive because it seemed to accept non-traditional approaches to educating – the whole student.
“This was a district where I felt like I could lead more progressively,” she said. “I wanted to really be able to have an impact, and I’ve really been able to do that here.”
As principal she created the Stand Out student of the month program. Though very similar to any other student of the month award, she adds a personal touch.
“I did not come from a family of educators. But my mother is really special. My mother was always saying ‘no one can ever take your education away from you.’”Pamela Hernandez
“I go to the student’s home,” she said, to present the monthly award. It’s part of her and staff efforts to be visible in the community outside the school building and to connect with the students and their parents. “I just want people to know how important it is to us to be in the community.”
Her involvement in the community lead her to run in the 2017 New Jersey marathon in Oceanport to raise money to purchase Chromebooks for students to use.
“We didn’t have enough Chromebooks and in the 21st century, knowing how important technology is, not that it should replace quality instruction, it does enhance what we are teaching,” she said.
Overall, she placed 1,908 out of 2,045 runners, but more importantly she raised $8,000 through her Go Fund Me page for the Chromebooks and as word spread about the marathon-running principal received a $10,000 donation from Burlington Coat Factory.
“Burlington stores heard about it and reached out and we were able to buy even more Chromebooks. I’m always looking to get money however I can,” she said. “But that was torturous.”
The elementary school no longer has a library – a disappointing reality for Hernandez – but one that presented an opportunity. With help from the United Way of Central Jersey she was able to secure approximately $50,000 to fund classroom libraries at JFK.
“You have to be humble, too. You have to let the people around you know that they can be leaders.”Pamela Hernandez
“We didn’t have books in our classrooms, either. Classroom libraries are extremely important so that students can have a choice in what they want to read,” she said. “When we got the classroom libraries, I remember the giant pallets coming off the truck. It was thousands, literally thousands of books arriving. Now all of our classrooms have, essentially outfitted with a full library, which is essential in any classroom that you go into.” Her office also has bookshelves filled with children’s books.
“I feel like if the kids really know how much you care about them, and they know that they’re cared about, in order for them to succeed they need to have that feeling. I don’t think you go into this type of job if you didn’t want to make a difference,” she said. “You have to be humble, too. You have to let the people around you know that they can be leaders.”
Her approach is evident. Students routinely say “hello” or “hi” Mrs. Hernandez. One young learner even ran up to Hernandez to give her a hug when she walked into the cafeteria during lunchtime. During snow days, Hernandez records of a video of her reading a children’s book that she posts to YouTube so her younger students don’t miss storytime.
And, as she said multiple times, “it’s about high expectations,” for herself, staff and the students. “We’re a culture of high expectations. I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t have this award without my team of amazing teachers, and amazing people who work here. We are changing the expectations of our students.”