Honoring our veterans

Recognizing service members at Pascack Valley Regional High School

by Kathryn Coulibaly

As the 2019-20 Bergen County Teacher of the Year, Leah Jerome, a history teacher at Pascack Valley High School in Hillsdale, visited schools throughout Bergen County. Inspired by the living history displays of alumni currently serving in the military, or who had previously served, Jerome began to brainstorm ways to honor service members and veterans while connecting students to the impact of that service.  

“Many schools that I visited did an amazing job honoring their veterans,” Jerome said. “In particular, New Milford High School and Hackensack High School had beautiful displays for their service members and veterans. I reached out to the educators responsible for guidance and advice.” 

Working with the Pascack Valley High School History Club, which began in fall 2020, Jerome consulted with the students to develop a list of active duty service members in time for that year’s Veterans Day activities.  

“They collected the photos and names of active duty personnel and created a display,” Jerome said. “It was a wonderful start, but in our minds, we felt it wasn’t complete. We wanted a permanent display, and we wanted to expand it to veterans and fallen service members.”

A wall honoring Pascack Valley High School alumni who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

Student commitment the secret to success 

As the scope of the project increased, Jerome knew she would need buy-in from the district and a budget. But the real secret of her success was the commitment and determination of her students.  

“This project really relies on the students,” Jerome said. “They live in the community, they have connections, and they know who to ask to get the information we needed. No one had a complete list of alumni who served in the military. Through the support and leadership of several students who took this project and made it their own, we were able to take a cohesive, well-designed plan to the administration which worked with us to designate a prominent place in the building with lots of traffic so people will see it.”  

Jerome and the students worked with the school director of facilities, Robert Donahue, to create an architectural layout. He assisted with the logistics and helped to develop the scale and dimensions of the photo wall while Jerome and the students worked to hang the photos. Other staff pitched in to help, including the custodial staff who painted the wall.   

Hipp Grant helps fund service members wall 

The Pascack Valley High School Parent Faculty Organization provided some funding. To help fund the rest of the project, Jerome applied for an NJEA Frederick L. Hipp for Excellence in Education Foundation grant. Hipp grants are awarded annually to innovative projects that address a need in the community and can range from $550 to $10,000. Jerome’s $2,500 grant request was selected, and it enabled Jerome’s students to create the project they envisioned and honor the service members the way they wanted.  

Jerome’s grant was designated as the Jack Bertolino Grant for its focus on social studies and civics. Bertolino was a beloved NJEA director, staff member and teacher who passed away in 2019. He also served in the military in the 1950s, making this grant even more meaningful to those who knew him.  

“People who support and encourage you are part of the success of educator projects” Jerome said. “I definitely got that through the people who administer the Hipp grant. I would strongly urge anyone with an idea for a project to learn more about the Hipp grant program and apply.” 

Honoring all alumni who served 

Once the funding was secured, the greatest challenge in building the project was developing accurate lists. No one wanted to leave anyone off, but there was no comprehensive list of alumni who had served in the military. Some graduates may have entered the military upon graduation, but others may have enlisted years after graduation. It took almost a year of reaching out to the community, teachers, and alumni to make sure the list was accurate.  The next step was adding pictures, which was another major project and one the History Club excelled at pursuing.  

“When we learn of a new name, we add their picture as soon as we can,” Jerome said. “We started with 30 and now we are closer to 50.” 

The display includes active service members, veterans and fallen heroes. It reads left to right and the heading states: Dedicated to Pascack Valley alumni. A TV screen has been added that scrolls the names of veterans.  

The History Club is also working on a website so those outside the school building are able to see which names are included and to help identify who might be missing from the list.  

Jerome is eager to continue to expand the project. In addition to updating the wall as new alumni enter the service or they identify other service members, she would like to develop this into an oral history project.  

“The goal is to honor our veterans and their experiences, while also humanizing history for our students,” Jerome said. “The ability to connect students to history gives them something they can never get out of a textbook.”  

Memorial Day program remembers fallen heroes 

Jerome and the students also organize a Memorial Day program to honor fallen service members.  

“We hold a memorial service and read something about each fallen hero in the courtyard before school,” Jerome said. “It’s important for all of us to stop and think about their sacrifice.”  

Jerome gives the students much of the credit for the success of this project.  

“The students wanted to take ownership and now, collectively, this is a legacy everyone in this district can share,” Jerome said. “Everyone who walks past this wall or visits the website can see what we have built together to honor our service members and that is a point of pride for all of us.”  

As a history teacher, Jerome studies the military and understands the historical context. She said it is a unifying opportunity for students and staff from every background, a place where everyone can step back and say thank you to active service members, veterans and fallen heroes.  

“This wall will be here long after I am gone,” Jerome said. “This project is a legacy of the History Club of which I am proud. We hope it inspires our school community and shows our gratitude to our alumni who chose the path of service.” 

Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to njea.org. She can be reached at kcoulibaly@njea.org

Apply for an NJEA Hipp Grant 

Grants from the NJEA Frederick L. Hipp for Excellence in Education Foundation help educators bring creative ideas to life. The only foundation of its kind in New Jersey, the Hipp Foundation supports initiatives to promote great ideas—whether they come from teachers, secretaries, custodians, paraprofessionals, bus drivers, cafeteria staff, or any other member of the school community.  

More than $2.3 million in grants for innovative educational projects that represent a bold, fresh approach by public school employees has already been awarded. Apply for a Hipp grant and bring your innovative ideas to life. The annual deadline is March 1. Grants range from $500 to $10,000.  

Learn more at njea.org/hipp

NJEA Patriots Alliance  

In 2017, NJEA created the Patriots Alliance, a coalition of NJEA members who served in the armed forces and are now working in public education.  

The alliance now numbers more than 200 members. It helps to inform veterans of their rights and benefits under the law and advocate for their specific interests. In addition, members of the NJEA Patriots Alliance are available to speak at schools and provide valuable insight into careers in the military.  

 Learn more about the NJEA Patriots Alliance at njea.org/patriots.