Five ways Newark Public Schools alumni can help rebuild our neighborhood schools (whether you still live in Newark or not)

Fellow Newark Public Schools alumni, if you truly believe that Black Lives Matter, it is time to give the black and brown lives in your hometown’s neighborhood schools some of your attention.

This is not a stand against any other kind of school, for every public entity serving the children of Newark needs to be uplifted and supported. As a social justice advocate and organizer, my work is driven by the belief that all children deserve the right to a high quality education.

However, our neighborhood schools – the schools that most of us 25 and older graduated from – are the least supported and the most in need of it. The schools that educated us and played a major role in who we are today, the schools we were able to walk to as children, are now being closed, neglected, traded in, destabilized, under-resourced and generalized as failure factories.

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Kaleena Berryman, center, poses with students.

But they are not failure factories. They are the schools that produced you and me. They are the schools that, if I may keep it real, must be seen as failures for other “school options” to grow. They are the schools whose very real socio-economic challenges are left for footnotes and afterthoughts, just like the cultural history of the children who are taught in them. And they are the schools that too many of us have turned our backs on.

The city of Newark struggles with many problems that create the conditions that schools must address before they can even begin to educate our children. The barriers can be overcome and all children can have the chance to excel, but it takes a holistic, whole child approach; an understanding of the issues and solutions; and a great deal of support and strategically placed resources to make it happen.

Most importantly, the children in that school must believe that they matter, and that with their Newark Public Schools education, they can achieve great things. The schools must empower them and their families with the knowledge and skills required to compete in this world. With the creation of public magnet schools and then public charter schools, it became easier for those with money and influence to turn their attention and resources away from neighborhood schools. Charters and magnets provide better results in a quicker amount of time. These schools are in different ways selective, and parents apply into them. It is an unspoken belief that attending them (charters and magnets) is a privilege. And that by contrast, attending a neighborhood school is simply, not.

That must change. And in my opinion, a key factor in changing how our children see their schools, their city, and themselves, is allowing them the opportunity to see themselves in us. The talented, enriched, educated and experienced alumni of the great city of Newark must come back in full force and take control. We must give a damn. We must raise our schools’ social capital. If we fail to do this, we will find that the city we know and love has very little that we can recognize.

A city is only as strong as the children its public schools produce. And the children of Newark will be deemed as in need of “saving” by outsiders, because those who are truly responsible for them have failed to do their job. I am in no way asking you to save Newark Public Schools. But I am challenging you with the task of leaving your mark on some part of it. Here are just a few options to get you started. I call them “five bricks,” and I encourage you to take one.

1. Stop looking down on your city
The mass mainstream media has done a phenomenal job of making it seems as though Newark’s streets only produce drug dealers, poverty and crime. Knowing the numbers and seeing the news reports of low-performing schools and murdered young people makes it easy for all of us to want to flee Newark, and not see any good here.

But if you think about it, that’s not the only part of Newark you know. When you were a student in Newark, as much as you may have loved your school, it was likely at that time labeled “failing” (the state took over the Newark Public Schools in 1995). Those who look down on Newark now once looked down on you too.

But back then, and still now, there are amazing programs, excellent teachers and opportunities, beautiful art and inspiring people here. And back then, just like now, the schools lacked the support and time of the adult village surrounding them. There are still great neighborhood schools, and families are still choosing them. And that “failure” label is based almost solely on standardized tests that were never intended for us to pass anyway.

I have the pleasure of teaching Newark students from various schools, and regardless of what their individual test scores may say, they are amazing. It hurts that many of them have not reached their fullest potential because their schools lack critical opportunities. To change that, we must address the disparity and call it what it is – injustice.

2. Learn the issues and lend your voice:

Many of our neighborhood schools are forced to make miracles happen with less, especially those in neighborhoods where school support is weak and poverty is highest. School budgets have been cut and resources diminished. Instability in school leadership and teaching staff runs rampant, with some schools changing principals multiple times over the course of five years.

Meanwhile, at 2 Cedar Street, the cost of consultants is in the millions. And the teachers without placement pool — teachers who have been dismissed from their school but not placed in another — are costing tens of millions of dollars a year.

None of this results in a better or even standard education for the children of Newark. And the schools that are showing growth are those who have leadership strong enough to do the kinds of things the community has been advocating for. They have a clear community focus, and are making changes based on concrete best practices, not catchy state-imposed slogans that lack substance.

You can make a difference by learning the issues and lending your voice. Our people perish for a lack of knowledge, and things are hardly what they seem. Follow education advocates on Facebook, read the newspaper, and seek the information. Attend workshops and meetings, such as those held by the Abbott Leadership Institute (ALI). Lend your presence and social media newsfeed to organizations such as PULSE (Parents United for Local School Education), the Parent Power Movement, Newark Students Union, and NJCU (New Jersey Communities United). For some historical context, read books such as Unfinished Agenda by ALI director, and my mentor in education advocacy, Junius Williams. School closings, community schools, standardized testing, local control, and school privatization are just some places to start. Get informed.

3. Adopt a school or a classroom

The neighborhood schools that you once attended (if not yet closed) would do far better if supported by alumni. Simply choose a school or a teacher who you have a connection with, and decide to adopt that school or classroom.

Start by giving your time. Your presence alone in that school will greatly impact children, for they need to see the faces of people who look like them and come from their city. They need to see you doing well, as you instill in them the importance of giving back. Volunteer, present workshops for students, bring in guest speakers, assist with fundraisers, and write a letter to the school district about issues that need to be addressed.

Support the parent body. Have a skill set? Lend it to the school! Strategic planning, business, fundraising, public relations – these are the kinds of expertise neighborhood schools do not have access to because of budgetary constraints that charter schools invest a great amount of money in.

So much of “choice” is perception. The schools in Newark that are treated the worst are those the “powers that be” believe no one really cares about. If each of us took the time and invested in one school or classroom, imagine the impact it would have.

4. Attend (and speak at) a Newark Public Schools advisory board meeting

More than a year ago, Cami Anderson, the former superintendent of Newark Public Schools, stopped attending school board meetings. Why? Because she could. She did not like the tone of some of the public meeting regulars and the parents, who challenged her decisions. So she just stopped showing up. (She is now no longer the Superintendent).

People in power should not feel comfortable enough to do that in Newark. We, the alumni, have to start attending these meetings and offering our support. Pick two meetings a year, and if you can, sign up to speak. Speaking at a public meeting as an alumni means a great deal, it means that you are there as a person who is concerned about your community. It makes those in power think that the school has more than just a few “angry” parents fighting for them. And they should.

5. Mentor a young person/start a scholarship

If you don’t have a great deal of time or don’t wish to get involved at the school level, you can take an approach that reaches students directly. Mentor a young person or volunteer at a program that serves students. You can become a part of a program such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of Essex County, Leaders for Life, Girls Live Love Laugh, or one of the other great organizations running at one of Newark’s Center of Hope sites. You can also volunteer for an organization such as the Youth Media Symposium (YMS), or in one of the college success centers in the city of Newark the YMS students run.

Mentoring and volunteering allows you to help students one-on-one, and to offer advice and guidance over time. For students entering college, starting a scholarship would be a great way to invest in their future. You set the guideline — and make sure they aren’t all academic. So many of our students are unable to finish school because of small balances. (I once witnessed a very promising student lose their place in school for $900.00). Scholarships created just for Newark students would be a powerful way to show the world that we have our children’s backs. That we believe in their potential. Not only do their lives matter, but their potential for success matters too. 

No one else is going to fight for our city, or our schools. Newark should not be the place where folks with bright ideas set up shop and get rich, without getting their hands dirty. It is going to take those of us who have reached a certain level of awareness to take a stand.

Just imagine, where we would all be if social justice warriors of yesterday did not deem our lives worth fighting for, and even dying for? The social justice issues that make the news are not the only ones that we need to care about, alumni. If we take ownership of our own communities, we won’t be so dependent on others to do it. Our schools cannot survive without us. So please, take part in rebuilding our neighborhood schools. Help root for them. The others have a cheering section that is out of this world, and that is cool. But let’s give the neighborhood schools some power, some light. Help dispel the belief that they are not worthy of existing.

Featured image: Abbott Leadership Institute’s Facebook page


kaleena-berryman-pic1Kaleena K. Berryman is an education advocate, youth mentor, community organizer and writer. Born and raised in the city of Newark, Kaleena graduated with honors from Arts High School, as a Television Communications major. After being awarded a Presidential Scholarship to William Paterson University, Kaleena earned a Bachelor’s degree in Communication in 2004, with a minor in African American & Caribbean Studies. In January 2011, she earned a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Rutgers University-Newark.

Currently, she is the Program Coordinator for the Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers University-Newark. ALI’s mission is to teach education advocacy and family engagement skills to parents, educators, community leaders and students in Newark, NJ. She also serves as the advocacy coach for the institute’s Youth Media Symposium, and is President for the Organization of Black Faculty and Staff at Rutgers-Newark.

In 2013, Kaleena co-founded Newark Circle of Sisters, a 1,000-member-and-growing organization of women in the city of Newark who provide service scholarships to Newark women at all stages in their advanced education pursuits. After the birth of her son in 2012, Kaleena took up the cause of prematurity awareness, and launched her blog, www.praying4mypreemie.com, where she helps to empower parents of preemies with support, information and encouragement.

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