Denville Schools Superintendent Leads The Way To Improved District Programs

By Megan Roche

Steve Forte was not a kid who grew up loving school. The West Orange native graduated from high school in 1985 and headed off to Kean University to major in Criminal Justice. After changing his major to education, he still had hopes that he could become a police officer. It was then that he got kicked out of school.

After being kicked out, Forte picked up a job as a security guard at Channel Lumber in Springfield. Fast forward a few months and Forte got his act together. He re-entered school and took things seriously. During his year student teaching, Forte’s athletic excellence came through as he was an assistant football and wrestling coach at Livingston High School. His first big job out of college was a special education teacher position at Ridge High School in Basking Ridge.

From West Orange to Glen Rock, Forte bounced around to different teaching jobs throughout his early career. In his time at Glen Rock, he was the head wrestling coach where he led the Panthers to two state championship titles.

“I told my assistant coach at the time that I was going to help lead the team to their first state championship in the next five years,” Forte said. “We started our first year with me at the helm 0-13. I promised my team that if I couldn’t do it in five years, I’d let someone else take the reins.”

After taking the Panthers to victory, Forte decided it was time to look into a potential future as a school administrator. He headed to New Jersey City University where he earned his first master’s degree. His first principal job was at Lincoln Elementary School in Hasbrouck Heights before eventually becoming principal of Hasbrouck Heights High School.

“I loved working with the high school kids,” he said. “We did a lot of great things there. We brought in a lot of dual enrollment programs where kids could earn college credit while still in high school. We increased our AP offerings. Things are condensed in Bergen County but it was a great place and I loved working with the kids. Top notch. I can’t say enough positive things about it.”

Forte recalled some of his best moments in Hasbrouck Heights as he worked alongside kids that struggled. Much like himself, Forte wanted to help the kids who had lost their way. He remembers a young 19 year old girl who was only a sophomore whom he helped plan the rest of her high school career. After he headed to Verona, he heard from her that she had graduated from Bergen County College.

“I remember hearing from her and remember my own struggles,” he said. “I was immature and was in college at the age of 17 and I had no guidance. I felt it was important to offer my story to those kids who were struggling.”

While being a high school principal was fun, eventually Forte wanted to make the leap from principal to superintendent. In 2011, Forte took over the Verona School District, ready to tackle the job of superintendent.

While in Verona, Forte was instrumental in passing a $16 million dollar referendum to update and upgrade the schools in the area.

“I had to condemn the football field because of sinkholes that students were falling into,” he said. “We didn’t even have Wi-Fi so that was also included. We also updated our safety and security to the schools as well.”

When Forte took over the Denville Township K-8 Schools in 2014, the buildings were in disarray and in desperate need of repair. With proper budgeting, the schools have also been able to increase their bond rating to a AA-. Forte loves the fact that he gets to help the kids in his own community with their schooling.

“The positive thing is that I get to have an impact on my own kids,” he said. “I get to have a say in the town that I call home. It’s also the importance of being responsible to the taxpayers and when it’s the town you live in, you are also a taxpayer. It’s very odd but the rewards outweigh the negative.”

When Forte inherited the position of superintendent, he came into an abandoned board of education office that was condemned because of health reasons. He also came to substandard space, high teacher turnover rates, and worn buildings. The worst of it came when he realized that nobody seemed to notice the problems.

“People expected very little out of us because we were delivering very little,” he said. “Not when it came to academics, but when it came to facilities, we had no pride. We put together a plan to fix all these things and we’re very happy that it’s been done.”

Forte has had many proud accomplishments in his tenure with the township schools. One of the biggest investments he has put his time into has been the advancement of security and safety of Lakeview Elementary, Riverview Elementary, and Valleyview Middle School. He and Denville Twp. Police Chief Chris Wagner have been featured in many magazines on the steps that Denville Twp. is taking when it comes to protecting the children in the schools.

“It’s a horrible thing to have to deal with, but we are chipping away every year at making our schools as safe as they can be,” said Forte. “To me and our staff here, the number one concern is always and will always be the safety and security of our students. You can’t expect them to learn or to teach if they don’t feel safe.”

Forte and Wagner are so in demand that beginning in September, the two launched their own speaking tour and are traveling the state speaking to law enforcement officials, educational seminars, and have plans to speak to government officials about the importance of working together and doing the best thing for the kids. The two have also written articles on safety and security issues that have been featured in the NJ School Boards Magazine and Popular Mechanics.

“I felt that I had to do something to get the message out there,” said Forte. “It’s very hard to quantify that all the things we’ve done have stopped anything. I can only tell you that every day, all day this is what I think about. Whatever we do to protect our kids, we always look at it again and see if we can do anything better.”

When it comes to school safety and security, Forte attributes the success of the schools in Denville to the relationship that the town, police department, and the schools have together. He noted that the positivity and trust that runs throughout town hall are what make his job that much easier.

“We have an amazing partnership with the township,” he said. “All the people in town hall work together, we’re not acting like the town and the schools are separate. We run our own boards, but we work extremely well together.”

In addition to his school safety work, Forte was excited to kick off a new mental health initiative this school year. Denville is home to St. Clare’s Health and why not partner with the hospital to offer counseling services to students who may need it? The new program is just another layer to the onion of school security that Forte and Wagner have worked so hard to organize.

“You have to remember to get past the politics and remember to do the best thing to protect the children,” said Forte. “I’m very fortunate that Chief Wagner and I work well together, but if we didn’t, we would put someone in place who could work with anyone on the department to better our safety and security.”

During a recent board of education meeting, the board unanimously approved an extension to Forte’s contract. He will be the Denville Superintendent of Schools until June of 2022. The board was quick to praise many of the projects that Forte has plans to accomplish as well as all the work that he has gotten done over the last five years since entering his role as superintendent.

With the help of the public and community stakeholders, Forte and his board of education team are in year two of their five-year strategic plan. According to Forte, the plans are moving and are right on schedule.

“We have four major goals that deal with all of our operations,” he said. “We’re very happy with our fiscal health and our educational programs are moving along. These are all programs that we have that may not be for every kid but we’re sticking to the plan and seeing it through until the end.”

In his free time, Forte enjoys doing the things that all dads do. His two children, Marissa and Anthony, are extremely active in all things music and sports respectively. He was a member of the Denville Baseball board, coaches Morris Knolls Junior Eagle Wrestling, Denville Blue Angels Football and passionately volunteers in the township when he can.

In addition to all his volunteer efforts, Forte is currently continuing his education, hoping to graduate in December of 2019 from Saint Peter’s University with his doctorate in educational leadership.

Forte concludes, “We’re ranked the ninth best place to live in New Jersey. We expect to be good at everything we do. This town is a great place to live and work and at the end of the day I love being superintendent and a resident.”

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