It was a cool Saturday evening in March of 2014 when a discarded cigarette caused the destruction of James Monroe Elementary School in Edison. Fire engulfed the building, creating a six-alarm inferno.
The next day, College President Joann La Perla-Morales offered space to house the school, and by the following Wednesday, James Monroe opened on the campus. Fortunately, two buildings at the College – South 1 and South 2 – were slated to be torn down that spring. College officials put the brakes on that, and Facilities staff made the buildings operable in 36 hours.
The kids took classes in the two buildings, gym in the Physical Education Center, and played on the College grounds. The school play and graduation were held in the Performing Arts Center.
Now, seven years later, at least seven of the sixth graders at the time will be starting as freshmen at Middlesex College this fall. Recently four of them visited the campus and talked about the experience.
“Kids were upset that the school burned down, but excited about being here,” recalled Nicholas LaMarca. “I was so happy that Middlesex gave us that opportunity. I really loved being here.”
LaMarca is planning to major in computer science before transferring to Rutgers and going into cybersecurity.
There was some concern that if a space couldn’t be found that would accommodate the entire school, it would have to be divided. No one wanted that; they wanted to complete the semester with their friends.
“The classes were crowded, but I was very happy that we were all able to stay together,” said Holden Horan. “I also got to brag that I went to college as a little kid. That was really cool.”
He is planning to major in business management, transfer to Rutgers, and then start a career in sports management.
The community rallied around the school. Disney teaching artists visited, showing the kids dance moves, and then members of the cast of the Broadway play “Aladdin” performed, along with several other theater groups. The school’s annual Field Day was held at Met Life Stadium, home of the New York Giants, and the New Jersey Festival of Ballooning brought a hot-air balloon on campus.
Alexis Elias has fond memories of the three months at the College.
“I remember the bus rides to campus most,” she said. “I made a close friend on one of them. I also remember we got ice cream and t-shirts on the last day.” She is planning to major in business administration at Middlesex College and then transfer to a four-year school, possibly out-of-state. She wants to eventually open her own business.
James Tutalo recalled the size of the campus most. James Monroe was a single building, and Tutalo said it seemed odd that they would walk outdoors to reach various buildings, such as the gym or the Performing Arts Center.
“The campus was way bigger than I thought it would be,” he said. “The gym and the auditorium were huge. And we got free pizza.”
There was another advantage of being in classrooms that were slated to be replaced.
“Because the teachers knew the buildings were getting demolished, they let us paint the walls,” he said.