Atiya Perkins has taken over as the principal at McManus Middle School, and Peter Fingerlin is at the helm at School No. 2. Both had previously served as vice principal at their new school.
By Gary Miller
Students and parents at McManus Middle School and School No. 2 returned to school to find what may be an unfamiliar face in the principal’s office. But that doesn’t mean the new principal is in unfamiliar territory.
Atiya Perkins is the new principal at McManus, after three years as principal at School No. 2; Peter Fingerlin has taken the helm at School No. 2 after three years as principal at McManus. The move is a homecoming for both, since they each served previously as vice principal at their new school.
“I think this opportunity to come back here is going to put more smile on my face, a little more of a sunshine approach,” Fingerlin said. “Elementary schools are very welcoming, very family oriented. I’m really excited about being here.”
Perkins said she too is “excited and grateful for this opportunity.”
“I’ll be doing a lot of talking with the middle school students,” she said. “They might not say a lot back to me immediately, but they’ll know that when Perkins is around that I’m going to ask the questions to see what I can do to help them have a successful time here.”
Interim Superintendent Denise Cleary said she sees the moves as a great opportunity for both schools.
“Both Ms. Perkins and Mr. Fingerlin are valuable leaders on our administrative team and have served in various roles in their nearly two decades with Linden Public Schools,” she said. “We think this change will be good for both of them, as well as for the McManus and School 2 families. It gives them the opportunity to recharge and see things from a new perspective. We’re looking forward to a great year for both schools!”
Both Perkins and Fingerlin are taking a wait-and-see approach before planning any big changes to their new schools.
“Moving into something new, you have to take your time to figure things out,” Perkins said. “My goal is to identify the strategic direction the school is going in, the climate, the culture, the academics. Slow and steady can win the race, so I’m not looking to jump in and run.”
Fingerlin said that being familiar with much of the staff makes his transition easier.
“I going to sit and see what we have and see how it operates, then maybe make some modest changes and adjustments this year,” he said. “Then next year we can make a full evaluation and see.”
* * *
When Atiya Perkins first learned she would be filling in as vice principal at McManus about 10 years ago, she was “petrified,” having served only in elementary schools to that point. But something changed after she stepped into the position.
“I think I fell deeper in love with the job at that point because I was able to have more of a conversation with them,” she explained. “I wouldn’t say it was more meaningful, because every conversation with children is important, but it was a different response given back to me than being in elementary. They were able to apply what you were saying and you could see the fruit of your labor. I was able to meet their needs more, so they were able to understand more of what their role is, socially, emotionally and academically.
“That was exciting for me! I fell in love with it!”
Perkins grew up in Linden and graduated Linden High School in 1991. She attended Schools No. 4, 5, and 9 – and McManus.
“I was doing a walkthrough with a custodian the other day and I had one of those déjà vu moments,” Perkins said recently. “I remember being here as a student. It brought me back to that place of just being a kid. You don’t realize what an impact it has on your life. But it was like, ‘I remember these lockers, the hallway, all of this’! So that was fun.”
Before School No. 2, Perkins was principal at School No. 6, as well as vice principal at Schools No. 1 and 4, and a teacher at School No. 1.
The transition means getting more familiar with the middle school curriculum and the unique emotional challenges presented by students at that age. But the size of the school will not be an issue for Perkins; School No. 2 is the district’s largest elementary school with an enrollment on par with that of the middle schools.
“The number of students isn’t really a thought to me now,” she said. “When I got to School 2 it was. Did I know every student’s name? No. But did I know their faces and what certain students needed from me? Yes. That’s the important piece. It’s not about the number of people, it’s about what you can do with the people you’re around.”
She also said the structure of the building at McManus seems smaller, as opposed to the four distinct buildings that make up School No. 2.
“So that helps with just getting out and around to see more kids and be more visible,” she said.
That kind of collaboration between administration and teacher is important to Perkins, a graduate of Seton Hall University with a master’s degree in education leadership.
“My ultimate vision is to do what’s best for children,” she said. “It needs to be a collaborative effort between the administration, the teachers and the parents in order to understand what’s best for each individual child.
“With every problem, there is a solution to it. And in education, that’s the greatest part: You’re always learning something new, from anywhere and anyone. When you can do it with more people, the relationships are built. It is also an opportunity for you to challenge yourself and to take more risks. Because I don’t stand alone. I don’t want to do this all alone.”
* * *
Whether it is McManus or School No. 2, Peter Fingerlin is still surprised that he’s a principal at all. He did not grow up with the ambition of becoming a teacher, and worked in a number of different fields before he turned to education.
“But when I got in front of the classroom, I said, ‘Wow, this is pretty amazing,’ ” he said.
Now in his 17th year with Linden Public Schools, he can’t imagine doing anything else.
“I’m just really excited, and I’m a big believer that I’m here for a reason,” Fingerlin said. “Whether it’s to inspire more, to encourage more, to help more, whatever the capacity. I’m going to take the challenge and run with it and have fun with it.”
And fun comes with the territory in elementary school, he said.
“In an elementary school, the principal is like a rock star,” Fingerlin said. “Little kids love you if you relate to them, and they’re more expressive about how they feel. I’m excited that I’m going to be around a lot of happy kids. It’s just a different approach to the kids, a different way of handling them and relating to them.
“I still have the same goal of trying to make them better students, not just academically, but in day-to-day life skills.”
Fingerlin is a Sayreville native and graduate of West Virginia and Fairleigh Dickinson universities. Both of his parents grew up in Linden and he has a large extended family in the area. He started in Linden as a teacher at School No. 1, then Soehl Middle School and School No. 2, before become vice principal at School No. 2. He worked there under Larry Plummer, now principal at School No. 9, and Yelena Horré, now principal at Linden High School. He credited both of them with helping him develop as an instructional leader.
“They just allowed me to do the job, which I really appreciated,” he said. “When I interviewed for a principal job, I had first-hand experience with all the scenarios that they put in front of you.”
One program he plans to bring with him to School No. 2 is LiveSchool, which allows staff members to reward students with points for positive behavior. As students build up points, they can cash them in for prizes and in-school perks through an online system.
“The beauty is that kids can see their bank accounts grow based on what they’re doing,” Fingerlin said. “And you can customize it. So at McManus we wrapped it into different aspects of the character education programs. I think we’ll have the same success at School 2. If the kids know they’re being acknowledged for the good things they do on a consistent basis, I think it has great credibility.”
Beyond that, he wants to build relationships with the staff, which is made easier because many of them already know him from his time as vice principal.
“I’ve been with a lot of these people in three different roles: as a co-teacher, as a VP, and now I’m coming back as a principal,” he said. “When I come into a building, I get to know the people. You make yourself visible, get in the classrooms, meet the people and build those relationships. The more you can relate to your staff, you understand your staff and they understand you.”