Welcome Neighbor: Monroe School Takes Over South Buildings
It was a cool Saturday evening in March when a carelessly discarded cigarette caused the destruction of James Monroe Elementary School in Edison. Fire engulfed the building, creating a six-alarm inferno.
Before the embers had cooled, school officials were asking the question: where can we hold classes now? They didn't want to divide the school up. The kids wanted to stay with their friends and teachers.
The next day, Middlesex County College President Joann La Perla-Morales called Edison Superintendent Richard O'Malley to ask if the College could help in any way.
Space, he said. The school needed classroom space.
Dr. La Perla-Morales spoke with Donald Drost, the MCC executive director of facilities management, and they felt that two vacant buildings might suffice.
So that afternoon, Lynda Zapoticzny, Monroe's principal, visited the campus and toured South I and South II. The buildings had housed Financial Aid, the Scholarships Office, Equal Opportunity Fund, Minority Student Affairs, Health and Safety, some classrooms and a machine shop, but all had been relocated. The buildings were slated to be demolished to make way for a state-of-the-art science building, which is scheduled to open in 2016.
Mrs. Zapoticzny thought the two buildings would make a wonderful temporary home for James Monroe. Now all it would take is a monumental effort to get the buildings ready.
They started at 4 a.m., cleaning, ripping out partitions, replacing tile, restoring electricity and water, reinstalling bathroom fixtures, and many other tasks. It was a herculean effort, but in about 36 hours, the MCC facilities staff had created a school. The James Monroe sign, which hadn't burned, was transported to MCC and installed.
"As a community college, this is what we do – assist the community in times of need," Mr. Drost said.
Middlesex County Freeholder Director Ronald Rios thanked the College for its efforts.
"I cannot praise enough the good will and hard work of County College President Joann La Perla-Morales and her entire staff, who are working tirelessly to transform the space for the youngsters," he said. "Time and again, Middlesex County College takes a leadership role in the community, and for that we are grateful."
Classes at Monroe had been canceled on March 24th and 25th. Wednesday, March 26 would be the first day at the new site. Television news vans – most broadcasting live – dotted parking lot 3 since before dawn. The Monroe kids came in borrowed buses, hugged Mrs. Zapoticzny and walked through a gauntlet of MCC students waving a banner welcoming them and offering high fives. They entered the Physical Education Center where they were assigned classes; South I and II did not have enough rooms so some of the classes had to double up. Trailers would come a few weeks later.
Fifth grader Marisa Tufaro was excited about her first day at college. "I walked in the gym and I'm like 'This is three times the size of my gym!'" she said. "And I'm like 'holy cow, we could have a party in here!'"
Schools in Edison sent encouraging signs that were plastered all over the building and donations poured in: gift cards, supplies, and packages created by students in other schools.
"We are going to survive and we're going to be better for this whole experience," Mrs. Zapoticzny said. "Watching our children get off the buses and seeing their excitement made me realize that it really doesn't matter where we are. I am so thankful for Middlesex County College. They have gone above and beyond. They have made us feel welcome. This is now the start of James Monroe, Chapter 2."