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As a young physician working in a Paterson, New Jersey, hospital, school board service was nowhere on Dr. Jonathan Hodges’ life plan. But it was while treating patients in a hospital emergency room that his plan started to shift, and Hodges’ future in public education in his adopted hometown came into view.

In one incident, he recalled pulling the shotgun pellets out of the chest of a 21-year-old and watching him die from the damage to his heart. In another, while already treating two teenagers for gunshot wounds, a third teen entered the emergency room “carrying his intestines.”

In talking to other young people he encountered, Hodges noticed that many had dreams of sports stardom but “no focus or educational options that could lead them someplace else.”

Those encounters prompted Hodges “to go see what’s going on in the schools,” a journey that launched two decades of relentless advocacy for students, staff, and families as a commissioner on the Paterson Public Schools Board of Education.

In September, Hodges, a former school board member, was recognized with the 2023 Benjamin Elijah Mays Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by the NSBA’s Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE). The award, which honors a school board member who has demonstrated a long-standing commitment to representing the educational needs of urban schoolchildren, was presented during the annual CUBE Conference in Chicago before an audience of nearly 1,000 urban school board members.

The award pays tribute to the contributions of Benjamin Elijah Mays, the son of parents born into slavery, who became a civil rights activist, education pioneer, mentor to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., president of Morehouse College, and an adviser to three U.S. presidents.

“At CUBE, we pride ourselves in sharing best practices and showcasing excellence in urban districts,” said CUBE Chair Gill Garrett, president of Pontiac School District Board of Education in Michigan. In honoring Dr. Hodges and the Ferguson-Florissant School Board, recipient of the CUBE 2023 Award for Urban School Excellence, “we hope to inspire school boards across the country, but also give them the tools, resources, and network to serve their communities and ensure that their students have access to the best education possible.”

“Dr. Hodges is, quite literally, a lifesaver,” said NSBA Executive Director and CEO Verjeana McCotter-Jacobs. “Not only because of his time as an emergency room doctor, but because of his commitment and passion to ensuring that Paterson’s students have access to the funding, quality teaching, infrastructure, and other resources that each child in America deserves and should have.”

The now-retired physician, who served 21 years on the Paterson Board, provided a wealth of knowledge and a deep understanding of what the district went through and needed, says former board member Dania Martinez. “He was there when local control was taken away, and he’s been here when we obtained local control back. He’s a guiding light. He’s such a strong advocate for education, anything to do with academics. He pushes and pushes and won’t stop until it gets done.”

When Hodges reached out to the principal of Eastside High School in the late 1990s and volunteered to lecture before the health professions classes, the school district was already under state control. That status lasted nearly 30 years, until 2021. Invited to become a community member of the school’s management team, Hodges began taking note of academic performance, outdated educational resources, and crumbling school buildings.

“When I watched all the things that were happening with the facilities and the way things were not being taught to students, I decided to run for the board,” he says. First elected in 2002, he knew “we had to go fight. That’s where my voice began to rise.” 

Together with others on the board, he exposed mismanagement by state officials, highlighted substandard educational conditions, and uncovered missing funds. Through extended legal battles, aided by the Newark-based Education Law Center, Hodges helped lead the effort to secure a landmark court decision requiring the state to invest more in education and school infrastructure.

Hodges and colleagues also fought against delays in school construction and worked closely with local representatives and parent groups to achieve vital improvements, including the opening of new schools and renovations, Martinez says.

He challenged the board’s advisory classification during the state takeover, constantly pushing for greater autonomy and recognition, she adds.

Since local control was reinstated, the hard work continues to secure the adequate funding needed to develop a curriculum that is challenging, rigorous, and diverse enough for the nearly 30,000-student school district to be competitive with any in the state, Hodges says.

Retired Paterson Superintendent Eileen Shafer has known and worked with Hodges for more than 20 years throughout her various positions with the district. “He’s what a board member should be,” Shafer says. “Somebody questioning what we’re doing, asking why are we doing it? Why are we spending taxpayers’ money to do certain things? Is it working? If it’s not working, let’s get rid of it and get something that will work for the kids.”

His legacy is one of accountability, she says. “There’s no doubt about it.”

Hodges says his own educational experience, growing up mostly in Queens, New York, served as inspiration for the work he did on the school board. “When I was young, my mother used to check the textbooks, the science books particularly, used in my neighborhood versus those used in the rich, majority neighborhoods. It was like Dick and Jane versus Shakespeare,” he recalls.

Refusing to settle for an inferior education for her son, “she pulled me out of the neighborhood school and used false addresses to get me a decent education,” he says. “So, I’m very sensitive to the educational needs of children. I’m very aware and can’t ever forget what my mother did for me. I never would have made it otherwise. Never.”

Michelle Healy is senior editor of American School Board Journal.

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