NJ Pen 2020 Election Coverage: Meet the Pennsauken Board of Education Candidates


We invited the candidates for the township board of education to tell voters a little about themselves ahead of Election Day. Here’s how they responded.

By Matt Skoufalos | October 14, 2020

On November 3, voters in Pennsauken will choose from among four balloted candidates for three seats on the borough school board. Incumbents Lisa Eckel, Maria James, and Orlando Viera face challenger Nhuan Van.

We invited everyone to reply to the same set of prompts, telling voters about themselves, their priorities, and their views of the current state of the community. Answers were edited for clarity and length.

Lisa Eckel. Credit: Lisa Eckel.

Lisa Eckel, 55 (Incumbent)

Thirty-five-year Pennsauken resident Lisa Eckel works as an executive assistant and senior tax analyst, and holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Rutgers University.

A grandmother and one of four generations of current Pennsauken residents, Eckel is an active member of the Pennsauken Lions Club, former Central School PTA treasurer, and enjoys volunteering in the township.

Eckel is defending her recent appointment to the Board of Education.

What is your philosophy of education?

Education is everything! School is where kids grow as people, develop good habits, and figure out what their dreams are and how they can achieve them.

I think it’s important to have families more involved wherever possible. I think kids that get more involved in school (sports, activities, clubs, volunteering) can achieve greater success in life.

I also firmly believe that in addition to preparing students for college, offering career and technical education (CTE) courses really gives every student an opportunity to achieve success. College isn’t for everyone, and schools that recognize this and actively put in place programs to give students more options are a step ahead in helping kids achieve more.

Why would you like to serve on the board of education?

It’s been important to me in recent years to find ways to give back to my community. Having two grandchildren currently in the school system, it made sense that this was the time to get involved. I am happy with the direction the district is headed in, and want to be there to support the plan and be a part of the exciting changes.

What are the biggest challenges your school district faces?

Our district is moving in the right direction. I would like to see Pennsauken shine as a model district in our area and be a town that people choose to live in because of the great schools.

What are its biggest strengths?

We have an outstanding group of teachers and administrators who are devoted to bringing out the best in our students. They really care. They provide the foundation for creating a learning environment that allows every student to achieve and succeed.

The variety of programs offered allows students flexibility: for those going to college to be able to start earning credits while in high school, and those looking for a career upon graduation can get a great head start by taking one of many career and technical education courses. There is something for everyone.

Name three key issues on which you would focus if elected.

Student achievement is the top priority. Making sure the kids have every opportunity to excel and be the best they can be is very important to me.

I also think communication is vital to keep families involved more in what’s going on in school.

School safety has never been a bigger issue in the world. Our district has already taken great steps to make this a priority, and I would continue on this path.

Maria James. Credit: Maria James.

Maria James (Incumbent)

Maria James is a licensed cosmetologist of 15 years who serves on the Career and Technical Education (CTE) advisory committee at Pennsauken High School.

An 18-year Pennsauken resident and married mother of two, James is also a former Longfellow Elementary School PTA president who enjoys volunteering in the community.

What is your philosophy of education?

Being educated at school is the most important thing our children go through. By focusing on building a strong education system in our town, we are able to change the future for the better.

I believe every learning day in school is important and the time needs to be used discerningly. Our young learners need to be educated through observing, listening, exploring, experimenting, and asking questions. Having the students interested, motivated, and engaged in learning helps them understand why they’re learning something.

I feel students’ experiences through education helps children develop and fulfill their diverse potentials. Students gaining an education during these times will build their IT skills, as technology is rapidly changing, and this will cause them to be more productive adults in this fast-moving world.

As for education in secondary grade levels, I believe it is important to build independence in these students as well as prepare them for their future endeavors, whether they be college-bound or in a technical field.
I’m a strong supporter of educating both types of students. Being educated and prepared for successful years in college as well as spending high school years being taught a Career and Technical Education course is beneficial to our youth.

What’s most important in education is the teacher. In education, the main role of a classroom teacher is to teach knowledge to the student. In reality, teachers perform many roles. They set the tone of the classroom, mentor and nurture students, become role models, and look and listen for signs of trouble.

I feel a positive classroom atmosphere is where learning occurs best. When students feel good about themselves, their peers, and their surroundings, they will think positively about the material they are learning. Students learn by connecting new knowledge with knowledge and concepts they already know. Each grade level is important, and education is an individual experience for each student.

Why would you like to serve on the board of education?

I’m currently serving my third year as a member of the Pennsauken Board of Education. I decided to seek re-election because I’m truly invested in the success of the district as my two children attend Pennsauken Public Schools.

Four years ago, I began learning about the vision and plans to transform Pennsauken school distinct into a leading, elite district. I supported that vision, and decided I wanted to be a member of the Pennsauken Board of Education to ensure the changes were made.

During the last three years, Pennsauken school district enrollment has increased, academics have improved as well as academic achievement, many new programs are being offered, and great improvements have been made to our facilities.

I’m a great candidate for this position because I have three years’ experience as a school board member, my children will be attending Pennsauken Public Schools for another seven years, and I’m committed to school safety, student achievement, parent involvement, communication, and supporting positive changes that will make this district successful.

What are the biggest challenges your school district faces?

Right now, the biggest challenge our school district faces is navigating this new world of educating that COVID-19 has launched us into. Pennsauken students are being educated through a hybrid schedule or full remote learning. Keeping the students engaged in learning in a distanced setting is a challenge that the world is up against.

What are its biggest strengths?

Pennsauken school district’s biggest strength is teamwork: among the board and the Chief School Administrator, among administration and teachers, and among the teachers and parents.

As a result of this teamwork, our academic courses, vocational courses, and extracurricular offerings are a big strength of Pennsauken public schools. We have strength in the dedication of our administration and teachers who are with our children daily, enriching them and educating them in ways we as parents can not.

Our food service staff shows incredible strength as they feed our children during each school day, including every school day through the COVID shutdown. You can see Pennsauken strength in our outstanding maintenance department, from the cleanliness of our buildings to the landscaping and improvements to our facilities.

You’ll also witness the strength the Pennsauken School district has in our bus drivers. They are the first person our students see every morning. What would the school district be without the hard work of all these individuals working together?

Name three key issues on which you would focus if elected.

  • Continue to increase our student enrollment by educating the community about what Pennsauken public schools have in academic, vocational, and extracurricular offerings.
  • Support new programs in the district with a keen eye towards fiscal responsibility.
  • Development of the Longfellow property.


Nhuan Van. Credit: Nhuan Van.

Nhuan Van, 31 (Challenger)

Nhuan Van is a client relations specialist at the Merchantville-based Tada Tech, and a member of Pennsauken Environmental Commission.

Van enjoys tennis, reading, and hiking.

What is your philosophy of education?

I subscribe to eight main principles of education.

All children, regardless of their gender, age, disabilities, and culture(s)/ethnicities should have the opportunity to go to school, and receive the best education in Pennsauken.

I want to make sure that all Pennsauken education programs are technologically modern at all grade levels so that our children can enjoy learning while in a safe environment with a high-security program.

I want to make sure our children will gain easy access to all resources, school subjects, programs, and educational tools that are affordable and prepare them competitively for their career in college and beyond. I will make sure that no child’s education will be left behind in Pennsauken.

I strongly believe that every student, parent, teachers, alumni should be given an opportunity to voice their opinion(s) in an accepting environment without fear of reprisal.

I strongly advocate a need for more music, science, art and various other subjects programs for the students.

All school subjects & programs will receive the equal budget and if they require additional funds for their program they will be invited to speak to the members of the Pennsauken School Board.

All members of the school board, the superintendent, the school administration, business manager, teachers; all stakeholders must follow all the policies of the laws of the school system and the board of education, and all should be held accountable to them. I want to make sure that there will be checks and balances among these groups, and individuals in those categories I mentioned above must not dominate over the other groups or overstep their boundaries.

We do not sit in the board meeting every single meeting and allow only the school administration and the superintendent to make all the decisions for the board of education members based on their own agendas.

Why would you like to serve on the board of education?

I have always felt indebted to the Pennsauken school system as a result of the excellent education I have received during my transition from childhood to adulthood. It became the core of my principles, beliefs and allowed me to become a citizen of integrity with moral standards. So now I want to give back to my Pennsauken community with all my knowledge, and within my ability to uphold that same principles that were given to me.

What are the biggest challenges your school district faces?

The school district is still managed by the same group of individuals that have been on the school board for over a decade with no new improvement of the school system structure or education for the students.

I want to create a more responsive board of education to do a more effective job managing the school administration, and especially with more oversight than has been shown in the past. I want to make sure the superintendent does his job properly and listens to the issues and concerns of students and parents.

The school district is in favor of athletic sport programs that invest large amounts of school funds into building a sports field house. They could channel those school funds toward other programs for music, science, art, and other school subjects.

What are its biggest strengths?

The Pennsauken school district is known for its diversity of students from various cultures and ethnicities who bond together and form lasting friendships with their classmates as they study together in their classrooms with their teacher.

Pennsauken students show their pride and school spirit through school activities such as music, science, arts, sports, and many other school programs. They also get involved in community service, school clubs, and organizations. Our district has excellent instructors who are passionate, dedicated, and committed to our students’ educations.

The teachers in our district often receive low salaries while being neglected, and are not recognized enough by the school administration and superintendent commensurate with their excellent services. There is a good side to allowing teachers to voice their opinions, which will boost our school morale and ability to work together to further promote our students’ educations.

Name three key issues on which you would focus if elected.

Advocating to the state for more aid in funding and resources for the Pennsauken school district; improving the safety and security of all schools; and lastly, creating a new test program or method of learning to help guide students to score higher in their standardized tests.

The latest formula of state aid for schools in Camden County is unjust when it comes to funding from the state. The aid for Pennsauken schools—around $1.7 million—is like receiving little crumbs left over from a pie that has already been carved up by other counties in New Jersey.

The Pennsauken school district doesn’t even make it to the top 100 or 200 on the Best Schools in New Jersey to be mentioned or praised for top test scores. The Pennsauken school district is in a serious need of more funding, more resources, and more state support, just like Camden City schools receive.

All schools in New Jersey are lacking in emergency training for teachers, administration, and students. If a gunman carries a gun inside of the school, how would they respond to such a threat and protect students from getting harmed?

I believe our schools need regular drills or training for faculty, staff, and students in case such an emergency arises, while adding more security guards patrolling the school ground with the latest updated school cameras, door security, and an emergency system that can call the police to come right away.

Test scores measure students’ performance and how much they learned throughout the year; however, test scores can demoralize students who don’t do well with standardized testing, adding more pressure for them to score higher on the next test.

When I took a standardized test in math and ended up scoring poorly on it, the results motivated me to score higher on the next exam. I recommend a teacher go over the questions from the test with students one-on-one.

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