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History of the Perth Amboy Center

John Kruszewski

Far too often academic institutions are perceived entirely as buildings of wood, brick and mortar. Not enough attention is given to the metamorphosis of both people and objectives that are so often a part of the history of areas of higher learning. This type of evolutionary process is best evident in the history of Middlesex County College’s Perth Amboy Center which can follow the progress of a onetime experiment into a dynamic and integral part of the educational life of our county. Not only has the Center developed into a key part of the institutional life of the College, it has evolved into a multidimensional site that serves both the academic and employment needs of Perth Amboy and its environs. From its humble beginnings, the Center has matured into a site where ESL, developmental, and academic courses are juxtaposed with programs of vocational assessment and job placement assistance—a site ready to serve both the College and the community for many years to come. Its proclamation of “Juntos Podemos—Together We Can” reflects its ongoing mission of several different, yet harmonious, levels of service to Middlesex County College, Perth Amboy, and the surrounding communities.

Spearheaded by the efforts of Dean Eric Hepburn, Middlesex County College committed itself to additional community outreach in 1972. That year witnessed the College beginning to experiment with various sites in different communities throughout the county such as local high schools and Adult Education Complexes. The Perth Amboy Adult and Continuing Education Complex at 178 Barracks Street was the site for the College’s English, Business, and Psychology courses. The burgeoning Spanish-speaking population in Perth Amboy necessitated an evolution in the College’s thinking in 1974. The Barracks Street site became an official Bilingual Center in that year with an experimental curriculum that now included two courses of English for Speakers of Other Languages. In fact, a Sociology course was offered at Perth Amboy High School in conjunction with the schedule at Barracks Street. Additionally, during this same time period, the College offered some courses at the Perth Amboy Community Guidance Center in a storefront program located on State Street. In 1976, the College received a grant of $17,000 for its Perth Amboy project. With this money, the first full-time coordinator, Abel Espada, was hired and, under the guidance of Dean Warren Kelemen and supervision of Barbara Greene, established an office at the Barracks Street site.

Further change was soon underway, however. The demand for bilingual courses in the College led to the development of Proyecto Puente or the Bridge Project. Martin Pérez, who followed Mr. Espada as coordinator of the program, led this endeavor. The concept of a bridge was utilized to create the image of bringing the community toward a wider spectrum of educational opportunity and to strengthen the ties between Perth Amboy and Edison. Mr. Pérez actively recruited Hispanic students from Edison and its neighboring towns and enrolled them in the various bilingual courses at the College.

Many Hispanic students in Perth Amboy yearned to be a part of this program but transportation difficulties and economic factors loomed as obstacles to their ability to register in Edison. Members of the College’s administration were made aware of these difficulties and a decision was reached to facilitate educational opportunity to the citizens of Perth Amboy. The College negotiated an agreement to lease classroom space at 178 Barracks Street and to offer college courses between 1PM and 10PM, thus accommodating students whose work schedules and/or transportation problems precluded their attendance at the main campus.

With the approval of Dr. Nick Rosal, the director of the Perth Amboy Adult School, the College opened an office at Barracks Street for the exclusive use of Proyecto Puente under the leadership of Martin Pérez. In effect, the Bridge became a foundation for the development of the Perth Amboy Center that continues to this day. Various directors followed Mr. Pérez, including Emilio Paúl and Orlando Castro.

Project EMPLEO (Encouraging Maximum Practical Learning for Employment Opportunities) was implemented in 1985 in order to develop the educational and employment skills of Hispanic women in Perth Amboy and its environs. This program combined an increased awareness of the breadth and depth of Hispanic culture with a solid background of language skills. Project EMPLEO also fostered a foundation for employment by teaching a variety of strategies for resume design, job searches, and interview techniques.

In 1986, under the direction of Ms. Iris Ramer, the Center relocated to its current position at 133 New Brunswick Avenue. Its exterior storefront appearance may make it difficult to conceive as an academic institution but this façade only complements the fact that the Center is such an integral part of the community. Because of the intrinsic nature of the Center, it was reassigned to the jurisdiction of the Division of Community Education. The new site helped foster the growing multi-dimensional nature of the Center, complementing academic offerings with life and career skill development and further intertwining the Center’s role in the socioeconomic and educational life of the Perth Amboy community. In its new environs, the Center developed a program entitled LOGRO or Linguistic and Occupational Growth Requires Opportunity. The title of the project was derived from the Spanish word for “success, gain, benefit, profit, or attainment of purpose.” The program ran from 1987-1991 under the direction of Rosa Gamarra. LOGRO consisted of a curriculum that included ESL classes, mathematics, career skills, and basic electronics. Its multi-faceted approach was designed to provide vocational skills, referrals, and technical training in basic electronics to a target group of adults who were out of school, unemployed, or underemployed. The Basic Electronics component of LOGRO was designed to prepare its participants to enter the job market with a variety of skills in the field of electronics. The program was divided into three modules—Basic Electricity, Digital Electronics, and Microprocessors—each consisting of 200 hours of study. Students finishing the course received the opportunity to enter the job market as an electronic tester or technician, a semiconductor development or instrumentation technician, or a production repair specialist.

A fundamental change in the scope and nature of the Perth Amboy Center occurred in September 1988 with the opening of the Child Care Center. The Center, funded by the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services, cared for fourteen children in its initial year. The Child Care Center flourished for a period of twelve years. In September of 2000, both the administration of the College and the Center's Director decided to close the program in the wake of the city of Perth Amboy's acquisition of funding to offer childcare services to the community. The College and the Center arrived at the decision that the Perth Amboy Board of Education would be able to provide adequate childcare services at a lower cost, thus making the Center's services in that area no longer necessary.

The following year witnessed the implementation of other vocational skills programs under the auspices of the Division of Community Education. The General Office Skills Training with Computer Applications curriculum prepared students for entry-level clerical positions by providing them with the foundations of computer literacy. Additionally, the Clerk-Typist Training Program equipped students with the skills necessary for positions in the clerical field as file clerks, receptionists, clerks and clerk-typists. Students were also introduced to the essential components of a proper business office demeanor.

María Mora became the Director of the Perth Amboy Center in September 1988. The Center began to expand its services even further with the implementation of new programs under her vision and dynamic leadership. However, the Center first needed to address the additional issue of its own logistics. At the time of Ms. Mora’s assuming the position of Director, the Center was located in what is now known as the back suite area. In 1992, faced with an increasing demand for childcare services, the Center expanded beyond this original area to accommodate more children. The funding for this expansion was provided by DYFS and it led to the addition of three more classrooms.

This extra space proved to be a godsend for the Center as it faced a boon in the growth of student population in the mid-1990s. At this point in its history, the Center now found itself able to sublet its exterior area to two state programs (JTPA and REACH) that dovetailed nicely with the mission of the Center. These programs proved to be invaluable in contributing to the fulfillment of the mission of the Perth Amboy Center.

The Perth Amboy Center’s integral role in the community became further evident with the advent of the Life Skills Program in the 1990s. Funded by the New Jersey Job Training and Partnership Act (JTPA), Life Skills was designed to serve the state of New Jersey’s new economic achievement program (R.E.A.C.H.) clientele. Targeting men and women who were enrolled in FDP, this ongoing four-week curriculum for men and women proved to be very popular. Its participants were given coursework in maintaining and improving self-esteem, parenting skills, decision-making strategies, time and stress management, and job survival techniques.

With funding from the state, the Community Work Experience Program (CWEP) was established at the Center in the latter part of 1992. This was an ongoing attempt to provide clients on public assistance with employment opportunities at selected work sites in the area. In addition to the actual probationary placements, this grant provided its participants with lessons about employability skills. The objectives and framework of CWEP closely shadowed those of Job Search, a program that had existed in some form or another for years in the Center. Like CWEP, Job Search was and still is designed to help clients on public assistance to obtain employment skills and job referrals. Funded by federal and state monies, Job Search is much more time-sensitive in that its clients must find gainful employment within certain time frames.

The Career Directions Program originated in 1992 as a career guidance and development service designed to assist and advise students with their vocational planning. This endeavor provided its clients with an opportunity to both analyze and evaluate their career goals and skills in order to assist them in their career direction. The program designed various workshops permitting students to explore various career goals and employment alternatives and ran through 1994.

With the burgeoning development of the Center, its services, and the scope of its student population, physical space again became an issue. Investigations into several new sites for the Center began in earnest in the mid-1990s. Although the Director and several College officials investigated possible alternatives, a decision was reached to take over the office space that had been subleased. Although there would be a few minor variations in subsequent years, the Center had reached the physical parameters that it enjoys to this day. Its importance to the community would continue to grow, however.

A different type of skills course was offered in 1995 and 1996. The Consumer and Homemaking Program created a variety of workshops to instruct its participants in all facets of home skills. Workshops included training in money management, comparison-shopping, parenting tips, nutritional and medical care for children, and the components of infant and child safety.

The Perth Amboy Center also housed the W-CAD Program (Women in Computer Aided Design), funded by the Office of Bilingual Education and Equity Issues, New Jersey Department of Education in the years 1995 through 1997. This two-year program was designed for women who were single parents or displaced homemakers with limited income. Services included developmental courses in reading and writing and/or ESL courses, career planning and counseling, the procurement of certain life skills, job placement assistance, childcare, and courses toward a CAD certificate.

The New Beginnings program of 1997-1999 effectively replaced the W-CAD curriculum by integrating its principles with those of the former Life Skills agenda. One measure of the program’s success was the fact that several of its graduates were placed in positions within the College community itself.

Throughout its time in Perth Amboy, the Center has taken great pride in its contributions to the academic and life skills development of the many students and clients who have walked through its doors. Any analysis of the Center that focuses solely upon these aspects of its history, however, would do an injustice to its other contributions to the development of the multiple aspects of a student’s needs and expectations. The United Students of Perth Amboy Club, originally established in 1982, has excelled in its attempt to provide for the social and cultural development of the students of the Center. Throughout its history, the Club has sponsored the annual Hispanic Heritage Night when students are invited and welcomed to present songs, dances, poetry readings and foods from their homelands. Additionally, the Club has spearheaded student trips to such places as Ellis Island, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Niagara Falls and Quebec, and Williamsburg and Busch Gardens in Virginia.

The most exciting aspect of the history of the Perth Amboy Center is that it is an ongoing process that is far from completion. The Center, through a grant from the state of New Jersey, recently installed a state-of-the-art phonology lab for use by its ESL students. This lab, and its companion on the main campus in Edison, are the only two of its kind in New Jersey. In the near future, the Center is scheduled to relocate in the new Vocational and Technical High School under construction in the Bay City. Like any story of metamorphosis or development, the Center will continue to experience “growing pains” but those are only necessary steps in the growth of any institution. Its ongoing commitment to the academic, professional, and personal growth of its students and clients will maintain and strengthen its position as an integral force in both the life of this city and the vitality of Middlesex County College as a whole.