BLOOMFIELD, NJ — John Cerniglia, a former teacher’s aide at a Bloomfield special-needs school, returned March 1 to his old workplace on West Street as the supervisor of curriculum and instruction. Coming back to Westbridge Academy after 28 years, he is spending time getting to know the kids and staff. To everyone, he is “John.”
“Building relationships is critical,” he said earlier this week in his office. “But kids are kids over 28 years. They still need that role model, someone who’ll listen when they’re upset.”
There are 77 students at the academy. Cerniglia checked a log to make sure of the number.
“Kids come throughout the year,” he said.
Westbridge is an out-of-district facility serving kindergarten to 12th-graders from Northern and Central Jersey. The students have behavioral and social challenges and there are 14 classrooms. Cerniglia said they receive the necessary instruction because the teacher-to-student ration is seven to one. Good relationships lead to better social behavior, he said. And the first thing someone should know about teaching at Westbridge is how to handle behavioral problems.
“When you see improved behavior, kids will focus on their academics,” he said. “The goal here is to get them back to public schools.”
Only seven weeks on the job himself, he figured the usual stay at the Westbridge was between two and three years but some students stay longer because the school offers them a comfort zone.
Later, walking down a hallway, a female employee Cerniglia knew by name confirmed what he had said: yes, two to three years. But a tall boy standing next to her told him differently: “Until your behavior improves.” Cerniglia got a kick out of that.
A child comes to the Westbridge when a public school cannot manage them.
“It’s truly about giving the child what they need,” Cerniglia said. “We have all the components in place. There is a strong focus on social and emotional learning.”
Generally speaking, Cerniglia says, sure it’s a success story when a student leaves Westbridge for a public school in their own district. But there are success stories in the hallways of the academy, too.
“We have one young man who just won a boxing title,” he said. “Another kid, instead of acting out, told his teacher the work was too hard for him. The teacher took him out to the hallway and the kid told them this. So, the teacher gave him a modified assignment and he did OK. And we recently had kids performing at Bergen Performing Arts Center.”
Cerniglia said he likes the private school environment.
“I always wonder why I didn’t go to a public school,” he said.
In a private school, he thought there was more of a team approach to teaching.
“There’s a lot of camaraderie and consensus,” he said. “If there is an issue, you solve it as a team. And you get to know your children when there’s not 20 in a classroom.”
During one previous employment over the past 28 years, Cerniglia said he worked with children with cognitive problems. This was at the Eastern Christian Children’s Retreat, in Wyckoff.
“When I worked with those kids, the goal for the day was just to make them smile,” he said.
He said he prefers to work with special education children because with them, “every moment is a teachable moment.”
“When they come to my office with a problem, I process with them,” he said. “Getting them back to class quietly and calmly, that’s a success, too. I love this population. I always have. You teach everything.”