More than 1,000 staff members gathered in the Linden High School gym on Wednesday, Sept. 5, for the district’s fourth annual Launch. The theme, to be carried throughout the year, was “Together We Can.” 

Superintendent Danny A. Robertozzi, fourth from left, with the district’s Unsung Heroes. From left are Lucas Ferraro,  Anthony Williams,  Vito Chiavuzzo, Roger Rotondi, Walter Schweikardt, Larry Miranda, Brian Martinson, Johnathan Birckhead, Nanci Kobylarz, Eugene Napoleon, Susan Desanto, Raymond Topoleski, Donna Didyoung, Abdelmonem Zeidan, Rona Renna, Antoinette Carothers, and Reina Irizarry-Clark.


By Gary Miller

Linden Public Schools honored unsung heroes from throughout the district and heard a dramatic and inspirational story about the impact a teacher can have on a student during the district’s fourth annual Launch on Wednesday, Sept. 5.

The Launch reunited all the employees in the district on the day before students report for school. More than 1,000 staffers got together for a morning of inspiration and fun in the Linden High School gymnasium under the banner of the day’s theme: “Together We Can.”

Along those lines, Superintendent Danny A. Robertozzi recognized unsung heroes from each building throughout the district as chosen by the district’s administrators.

“These staff members just go about their jobs day in and day out helping our students and their colleagues to make sure our district is the best it can be,” Dr. Robertozzi said. “They don’t get as much recognition as some others might, and they certainly don’t always get the credit they deserve. That is why we want to take the time out to thank them for all the do and let everyone know how valuable they are.”


Those recognized were Vito Chiavuzzo (security at Linden High School), Eugene Napoleon (resource teacher at Soehl Middle School), Johnathan Birckhead (music teacher at McManus Middle School), Abdelmonem Zeidan (science teacher at the Academy of Excellence), Lucas Ferraro (custodian at School No. 1), Anthony Williams (custodian at School No. 2), Antoinette Carothers (paraprofessional at School No. 4), Nanci Kobylarz (first-grade teacher at School No. 5), Donna Didyoung (first-grade teacher at School No. 6), Rona Renna (secretary at School No. 8), Walter Schweikardt (math coach at School No. 9), Susan Desanto (nurse at School No. 10), Larry Miranda (supervisor of maintenance), Brian Martinson (maintenance worker), Reina Irizarry-Clark (teacher coach), Roger Rotondi (athletic trainer), and Raymond Topoleski (Board of Education president).

Dr. Robertozzi also took time out to thank a group of workers who are key to the district but often get overlooked.

“Secretaries are at the forefront of everything,” he said. “They are very often the first experience a student or a parent has in our district. How you treat that parent and that child will give that person their entire perception of our district. So I thank all of our secretaries for giving that positive message.”

The morning also included a 50/50 and several raffles and games, including “Family Feud” and “Minute to Win It,” before staff returned to their buildings to prepare for the arrival of students the next day. LHS dance and physical education teacher Barbara Brady was honored by Dr. Robertozzi and her students for being named Union County Teacher of the Year for 2018-19.

The keynote speakers for the Launch were Donna Porter, a teacher from Mississippi, and her former student, D.J. Batiste, who had a long track record of suspensions and expulsions before he was given a chance to flourish in Porter’s classroom as a senior in high school. Their story was featured on a report by CBS News and they have traveled the county to tell educators about the power a teacher can have on their students’ lives.

“When you change the way you look at things,” Porter started off in her presentation to Linden’s staff, “the things you look at change. Well, ladies and gentleman, someone I looked at differently has tremendously changed: Mr. D.J. Batiste.”

Batiste said that what he needed was someone to teach him and believe in him, not push him aside.

“When you push a young man or young lady to the wayside, what you have done is a create a growing statistic,” he said. “He will get older by age, but his mind frame will stay the same. Make sure you’re not pushing kids to the wayside. Make sure you’re building them.

“Anything a school can do to you, I’ve experienced it. I was what they called the worst of the worst,” Batiste said. “Then on the first day of school, my senior year, this happened.”

The two then told the story of how Batiste showed up late to class and made inappropriate comments to Porter. But instead of disciplining him or making him leave the class, she recognized his natural charisma and made him the classroom greeter, giving him a purpose and desire to come to class.

“All my life, teachers used the fear approach,” Batiste said. “It only made me more defiant. Ms. P. used the love-based approach. She changed my life. Without her, I would be in jail or dead.”