Paterson Education Fund President Retiring After Three Decades of Advocacy
Monday, January 21, 2013 • 8:32pm
PATERSON, NJ – After 30 years of pushing for improvements to the city’s struggling schools, Irene Sterling announced on Monday that she would be retiring from her position as president of the Paterson Education Fund (PEF).
Sterling helped found the advocacy group three decades ago after Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education warned of the “rising tide of mediocrity” afflicting American schools.
Over the years, Sterling helped the PEF grow into a ubiquitous advocate for improving the education provided to Paterson students. Whether it was rallies in Washington, D.C., legislative hearings in Trenton, or Board of Education meetings in Paterson – Sterling would be there.
“It’s a blow to the community,’’ said Willa Mae Taylor, a retired Paterson education and former school board member, when asked about Sterling’s retirement. “We will miss her voice. Whenever we needed somebody to stand up for our children and our community, we could count on her.’’
“I’m very sad to hear she’s leaving,’’ said Paterson’s senior school board member, Jonathan Hodges. “She was a pioneer, a great defender and an advocate for the city’s education system.’’ Hodges said. Hodges said Sterling maintained steadfast faith in city students’ ability to learn, even at times when district officials seemed to accepted high failure rates, and he said she helped to cultivate a sense of dissatisfaction with the school system’s problems that evolved into reform initiatives.
“It’s a shame she couldn’t see better outcomes from her efforts,’’ added Hodges.
But Sterling does not see her efforts as being in vain. “I’m an optimist,’’ she said. “The glass is half full.’’ Sterling said the district’s two biggest obstacles are the ongoing efforts to politicize the school board and the ever-changing political dynamics in Trenton that undermine long-range attempts to improve the quality of education in Paterson.
More than two decades ago, the PEF and Sterling were among those who pushed to have the state take over Paterson’s schools. But after the state has failed to achieve success, she and the PEF now side with those who want local control back in place.
Under Sterling, the PEF has grown from being a group with one part-time employee to an organization with four full-time workers and a budget of more than half a million dollars. Over the years, the PEF does more than make speeches. It has funded and organized a variety of education initiatives, many aimed at improvement literacy, such as its “50 Book Club’’ and “Paterson Reads”.
Moreover, a little more than a year ago, the PEF helped Paterson’s advisory school board get legal representation to contest the state’s outright rejection of its latest bid for local control.
Sterling plans to retire this fall and the PEF will begin looking for her replacement in April and hopes to have someone picked by August.
“I want to join my husband as we slow down our day to day pace,” said Sterling. “A decision like this is never easy and one wonders when the time is right to make a life transition. This is the right time. PEF is in a good place with stable funding, strong programming and an engaged board. Now is an excellent opportunity for new leadership. I can step down confident of the organization’s future.”
Prior to getting involved with PEF, Sterling had run a children’s theater group that did performances in Paterson schools. In retirement, she plans to return to the arts, partly by reviving a play she helped write called “Children of the Mills.”’
“I want to create a picture book about the (Great) Falls for our youngest readers,’’ she said. “And I want to join my husband Howard in writing about our experiences in Paterson. I can confidently start this next chapter in my life, knowing that the education and advocacy work started through my tenure at PEF will continue.”
The chairman of the PEF’s board, Jerry Traille, said the organization will be working with a consultant, Leah Dade of the Paterson Alliance, on the organizational transition.