JERSEY CITY-Mary Baier sits at the helm of Our Lady of Czestochowa Elementary School and Little Harbor Academy. The schools are located at the crossroads of the Garden State's second-largest urban center. The education mission involves a creative, interactive approach to developing 21st century curriculum in a faithbased environment, which is populated by students of many nationalities, cultures and religions.
Welcome to the kaleidoscopic world of a New Jersey Catholic school principal.
Faith plays a central role for Baier's approach to Pre-K and elementary school education. She said it is at the heart of her spiritual grounding and her vision as an educator, as well as in the streetwise attention to detail and negotiation skills that are required of her profession.
The two schools operate under one roof as an outpost in a world of complex, diverse inner-city demographics. The financial crisis that continues to unfold in the power corridors of Wall Street-just across the Hudson River-is a long stone's throw from the school's main entrance at 248 Luis Marin Blvd.
Five years ago Baier knew her school needed to do "something different" in order to survive and thrive. That something different was establishing Little Harbor Academy, a Pre-K program for children ages two to five. Baier, in 2004, launched a pilot program-an early education Montessori effort that was composed of 15 two year olds. Today the Pre-K program has a headcount of 220 and a long waiting list of parents looking to enroll their children.
"Father Tom Iwanowski allowed it to happen," Baier said, citing the faithful support of the pastor of Our Lady of Czestochowa Parish. "His visionary collaboration empowered me to develop the Little Harbor Academy program. I've grown from the support of the school and our pastor."
The Montessori approach to education respects the independence and individuality of each student; "child-directed" programs for learning, Baier explained, adding that it lays the foundation for critical thinking. Montessori methods are designed to spark creativity, responsibility and at Little Harbor it's all done from the perspective of a Catholic, valuecentered environment.
The focus on faith cultivates a multicultural education and chemistry; half the students are Catholic, the balance represents other faiths such as Christian, Muslim, Buddhism, Hindu and Jewish. The enrollment at the school and academy reflects families who have relocated here from countries in Asia, Africa, and South America.
"As a principal, my scope of responsibilities encompass not only academics, religion and spirituality, but must also include rigorous development, marketing and mission identity," she said. "I am competing with many private schools in the area. We must come to terms with that and explain what it means to educate children of a global society in today's Catholic school environment. This is something that sustains our schools and is a great service to the needs of our community.
"We are a school very sensitive to and respectful of all our differences and appreciate each one's special unique personalities and talents," Baier continued. "It's all about values and virtues. The children understand and embrace these. We have great school spirit. We walk the talk. We are all about faith-filled children. We open our minds to knowledge and our hearts to Jesus."
The interfaith environment forms a much-needed common ground when the topic shifts to the mechanics and cost of education. "There are very high expectations," she said. "Parents are of a different generation and as such are more expressive in their concerns and needs. We are located near the hub of the world's financial center. Parents tend to be competitive and want to see innovative programs, challenging curriculum and enriching extracurricular activities. They are integral in the education partnership with our school."
The challenges come with the territory for Baier and ultimately serve a positive purpose, keeping her focused and open to new ideas. "You can't be restful , not if you strive to set a standard for educational excellence," she said.
Now in her 13th year as principal (eight at Our Lady of Czestochowa School-Web site: www.olcschool.org), Baier, a resident of Woodridge, is pursuing her doctorate degree in Education Leadership.