When Moses Ojeda graduated from Thomas Edison Career and Technical Education High School three decades ago, he quickly learned he was not prepared for the real world. Now, as the school’s principal, his driving motivation is to prevent students from experiencing the same thing.
Ojeda has spent nearly 25 years at Thomas Edison, as a student, teacher, assistant principal and now as its principal, making him an anomaly in a system where administrators often take over schools with which they have no connection. Today, Ojeda has used his unique perspective to bring the school up to speed by updating its technical programs and academic standards.
As a high school student, Ojeda studied in the business equipment machine repair program, which included learning to fix electronic typewriters. But when he graduated in 1993, he said he wasn’t prepared for the job market because no one was using the electronic typewriters any more.
“If I had gone into the industry, I wouldn’t have gotten a job,” he said.
But he decided to go in a different direction after the teacher who ran the machine repair program, Alexander Bell, asked Ojeda to help him teach his classes. Ojeda loved helping other students, and Bell encouraged him to attend a five-year teacher training program — Success Via Apprenticeship, run jointly by the city, the City University of New York, and the teachers union — where he could be certified to teach technical subjects.
The program required students to complete six-month internships and when it came for Ojeda to do his, he returned to Thomas Edison and worked with Bell to get rid of the electronic typewriter repair program and replace it with a computer repair program, which Bell continues to oversee today.
After he finished his degree, Ojeda worked as a teacher at Thomas Edison for 10 years and later as an assistant principal for four years. In that time, he found other ways to update the schools’ programs.
He saw how the computer industry was beginning to build its own networks, so he helped bring in a new CISCO networking class, which teaches students how to network buildings with routers and switches. When he noticed that e-commerce was becoming more popular and everyone wanted a webpage, he convinced the principal at the time to add a web design program. Now, he wants to partner with a solar energy company to revamp the electrical installation program that is shrinking because students are more interested in the school’s information technology programs.
Above all else, he said, his goal is to ensure that the school and its graduates are relevant by understanding industries’ needs.
But when Ojeda took over as principal a year ago, he faced a whole different set of challenges. When he spoke to colleges and employers, they told him that Thomas Edison graduates often had weak communication skills and lacked creativity. The school was already beginning to work on aligning its curriculum to the new Common Core standards, but Ojeda took the efforts a step further, requiring all teachers to issue more writing assignments and assign two research projects during the year. He asked librarians and English teachers to help the entire staff implement the new standards.
“So many kids hide behind the computer, texting and e-mailing. They feel more comfortable communicating that way,” Ojeda said. “When they get in front of someone they’re shy, they don’t have those skills, they’re losing that. You need that in the real world.”
In English classes, students had to write argumentative essays based on books they were reading. In a technical class, a student wrote a comparative essay about the difference between Wifi and Bluetooth technology. And in a physical education class, students learned how to read and understand each category on a nutrition label.
“Now not only are CTE students ready for the job force, they’re college ready as well,” Ojeda said.
Adding more challenging academic assignments was more work for teachers and students, and Ojeda said some pushed back on the changes. But he insisted that teachers embrace the new standards, he said.
“In the beginning, teachers felt like, you want me to be an English teacher? I barely have time to get through all the curriculum,” he said. “But now they realize competitions want that, and being aligned with the Common Core will also help them with their teacher evaluations.”
Ojeda talks about competitions a lot. Under his leadership, all 12 career and technical education programs compete in some type of competition, whereas before only a couple did. Ojeda proudly talks about a recent Thomas Edison school senior who was offered a $40-an-hour CISCO internship after beating out competitors with college degrees, and last spring, when the school’s two-person web design team won first place in the state’s Skills USA competition.
“Why am I so big on them? There’s the motivational factor. It motivates kids to be top of the class,” he said. “It’s also a way for me to measure myself against other schools city wide, state wide and nationally. If we’re not coming in the top 10 then we’re not doing something right. … We have to stay on the cutting edge.”
At every turn, Ojeda is trying to give students as much hands-on, real world experience as possible. With the robotics program, usually only seniors received hands-on training while everyone else was doing electronics theory.
“That can be boring,” Ojeda said. “I always put myself in their seat. If I’m in a classroom and I’m bored, I’m going to tell that teacher, I don’t mean no disrespect, but you lost me a few times, and if you’re losing me with the knowledge I have of CTE, then you’re losing them.”
So Ojeda decided that beginning in the 10th grade, students would be able to begin working hands-on with the robots. Last year the 11th-graders, with just three weeks to prepare for a national robotics competition, placed 17th out of 65 in the competition.
As an assistant principal, Ojeda also expanded the automotive shop program from one year to three after teachers told him they didn’t have time to do anything more than teach students to detail cars. Last spring, senior Shazim Nasim won first place in a national collision and refinishing competition. He was also named the salutatorian and received a full-ride to a Boston technical college that focuses on auto mechanics.
“The program used to be looked down upon, but now it’s highly respected,” said Barry Roopnarine, who teaches automotive collision and refinishing.
Ojeda credits much of his success today to Bell, his former teacher and current colleague.
“One thing I was taught by Mr. Bell when I was a student was in life, make sure you pick a career that you love, because if you don’t love your career, you’re going to dread waking up Monday mornings,” Ojeda said. “That always stuck with me. I love my job.”