Linden High School custodian Jurah Peele, right, with social studies teacher Monica Goncalves, a finalist for 2017 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year. Peele won a full scholarship to the University of Phoenix after being nominated by Goncalves.


By Gary Miller

When Linden High School social studies teacher Monica Goncalves met Jurah Peele, she quickly realized he was no run-of-the-mill custodian.

Goncalves is very particular about her classroom, but Peele was just as picky, making sure that the desks were lined up every day, that all the books were in place – and that the plants were watered.

“She’s crazy about her plants,” he said.

“Anytime I needed anything, he was always my go-to person,” she said.

But it was when Goncalves saw Peele interacting with students that her respect for him jumped to another level. So much so that she asked for his help on one of her lessons.

“When discussing contemporary race issues, I invited Jurah into my classroom to talk to my students and share his experience as a young African-American male in Linden,” said Goncalves, the 2017 Union County Teacher of the Year. “He immediately makes relationships with these students and I’m amazed. He belongs in front of the classroom.”

So when Goncalves – as a finalist for New Jersey State Teacher of the Year – was given the opportunity at a conference this summer to nominate someone for a full scholarship to the University of Phoenix, there was one person who jumped to mind.

“I thought, oh, my gosh, I have to do this,” she said. “I immediately sought the people out. They were coming off the stage and I was rushing them.”

That light bulb turned into a lightning bolt when Peele found out on Sept. 5 – two days shy of his 28th birthday – that he was one of 10 applicants chosen for the scholarship.

“A great birthday gift,” Peele said.

The scholarship is given by the University of Phoenix in partnership with the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) to top applicants who want to continue their education but may not have had the opportunity because of financial constraints. Applicants can be nominated only by state teachers of the year or finalists.

Peele plans to use the scholarship to major in history with the goal of becoming a history teacher and making an impact on students’ lives.

“This means everything,” Peele said. “I was shocked, my hands were shaking. I was just looking around, like, ‘Is this real?’ ”

Peele’s son – 3-year-old Jurah Jr. – is a key inspiration for his desire to continue his education and improve the lives of students.

“There’s a chance that these kids could meet my kid in the future, and I want that to be a good encounter,” he said. “If I have the power to make the future better, and change the present for these kids, who knows what could happen. I feel like I can really steer them the right way.

“Besides impacting the youth, I want to make my son proud.”

Goncalves said Peele, who graduated LHS in 2008, is a positive role model for Linden’s young African-American men.

“He does great things where he is right now, but can you imagine him in front of the classroom, where he can lead every single day for all these amazing students?” she said. “Just being able to share his experiences in Linden with Linden kids. That’s absolutely the idea of what we need.”

A key element of the Linden Public Schools’ “Lead Your Legacy” theme this school year is that every staffer has the ability to make a difference in students’ lives. Following that theme, Peele is proud of the relationships he has developed with students in his current role, and has been able to help students make good decisions.

“In one instance, there was a kid who stormed out of class and said to me, ‘I can’t do this school stuff,’ ” Peele said. “I pulled him aside and said, ‘This is easy, you can do this.’ And he walked off. I met him later in the day in the cafeteria and he said, ‘Thank you for that,’ because my words really impacted him.”

At the same time, Peele feels that going into the classroom would take his contribution to another level.

“I want more time to be more impactful on the kids,” he said. “As a custodian, it’s in passing. It’s five-minute conversations. But as a teacher you’re sitting down and really getting to know the situation of what someone’s going through. I feel I can guide them in the right direction.”

Goncalves said she and Peele, as well as Linden High School Vice Principal David Walker and social studies teacher Robert Mangel, were up late preparing essays for the scholarship’s Aug. 14 application deadline.

“The entirety of the Linden Public Schools community has his back,” she said.