Opinion

Dedicated teachers can’t provide the whole answer, says Newark’s mayor

It takes a lot more to disentangle a child from poverty’s barriers

In the Quitman gym, students look at the new books they received as a reward for the school’s academic progress. (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

In the Quitman gym, students look at the new books they received as a reward for the school’s academic progress.

As Newark, New Jersey begins to celebrate the 350th anniversary of its founding as a community, our schools remain vital to the progress of our city. There is nothing more important to the future of our city than the development and education of our youngest residents, the children of Newark. We have an obligation to provide all of our children, not just a few, with the resources they need to achieve in school and succeed in life.

In the 21st century, meeting every child where they are requires a comprehensive strategy that addresses their social and health needs, embraces the cultural diversity they bring to school, ensures they have the opportunities they deserve, and supports school leaders and staff, all while engaging our children in critical thinking and learning.

Galvanizing the assets in Newark to work in the interests of our children, our families, our neighborhoods and our schools is not merely a political or economic issue…this is a moral issue for our administration and the people and institutions in the City of Newark.

Related: A three-year look at a school trying to turn around — and the kids depending on it

Across the nation, 20 percent of all children live below the poverty line. An unfathomable 44 percent of Newark’s children are growing up in poverty. This translates into food insecurity, unstable and unhealthy living conditions, environmental toxins and untreated medical conditions like toxic stress, toothaches, and ear infections. The research is clear; while poverty is the single greatest threat to children’s well-being, we can disrupt its harmful effects on our children and schools. It is our responsibility to do so.

Creating successful schools is not a mystical process. It is grounded in research on best practices and is based on empirical data. Quitman Street School in Newark is an example of how aligning school improvement efforts with investments in health, social services, student supports, and community engagement equip schools with the level of school and community capacity required for success. All schools have challenges. Quitman Street School is no exception. However, Quitman’s steady progress toward transformation is linked to its strategic focus on weaving together resources from inside and outside the school and using those resources to build a responsive culture, integrate student supports and drive a focus on learning. In the spring of 2014, the school, led by Principal Erskine Glover, saw the highest reading gains in the district and the fourth highest in mathematics.

Quitman fifth grader Kalifa Swaray demonstrates to classmates how to do a problem using fractions during Jessica Allen’s math class. Allen often gives students the opportunity to assume leadership roles with their peers.

Prior to its designation as a Renew School in 2012, Quitman Street School was part of another school reform initiative called the Newark Global Village School Zone. Global Village was a reform strategy based upon an expanded conception of education that addresses the importance of academic skills and knowledge, as well as the development of the whole child. The Village brought social service agencies, community-based organizations, business, universities, and families together to build partnerships that supported the instructional and educational goals of schools in the Global Village network.

Related: A three-year look at a school trying to turn around — and the kids depending on it

Quitman Street School and Central High School, where I was principal, along with five other schools in Newark’s Central Ward, collaborated with New York University to develop the Global Village strategy from 2009 until the Renew strategy was implemented in 2012. Community partnerships, school-based professional development and collaboration, academic enrichment, extended learning time, and integration of student supports were core to our improvement plans. Developing these systems in the Global Village shifted the paradigm for school reform in our schools and established comprehensive and cohesive systems to help students bypass barriers and create opportunities for learning so they could thrive. Of course, the implementation of the Global strategy varied school by school. It is, however, safe to say that Quitman Street School embraced being part of the Global Village wholeheartedly so that by the time it became a Renew School a solid foundation on which to accelerate the school’s transformation had been established.

As a Renew School, Quitman Street School was afforded the ability to hire new teaching staff, gain substantial infusions of technology and lengthen the school day. Absent the systems and strategies Principal Glover had worked with the Global Village to embed in the organization of the school, they would be equivalent to moving chairs around on the deck of the titanic. Teachers would have been replaced, smart boards and computers placed in classroom, and more time added to the day without the capacity to make those things matter for student learning.

The hard, committed work at Quitman Street Renew School embodies the spirit and work of the Global Village, which underlies the work of our administration in addressing Newark’s education crisis. In order for district schools to successfully educate our children, it is essential that the leaders of public and private institutions and agencies in our city organize themselves around schools to support children and families and move school change.

Related: A three-year look at a school trying to turn around — and the kids depending on it

Strategies like Global Village – a framework consistent with the Community Schools strategy – are best practices for creating schools where every child has the opportunity to learn at their full intellectual potential. A citywide Community Schools strategy is vital to ensuring our schools develop the capacity needed to help every child become ready for college, career and citizenship. Our schools need a comprehensive and expanded approach to school transformation because it takes more than a teacher to disentangle a child from the barriers and lack of opportunity that poverty creates for their development.

Such an approach brings every sector of our city together to focus on getting better outcomes for our young people. Successfully designing and implementing community schools requires that schools, non-profits, health, police, housing, libraries, churches, unions and parents sit at the table together to plan, implement and assess the work. It seeks to restore and rebuild cohesion in schools, neighborhoods and families so that children are wrapped in a tapestry of supportive relationships and resources.

Education is just one of the areas where Newark is working to become the model for cities across the nation and the world. The implementation of our Community Schools strategy will serve as such a model. We declare that Newark is Ground Zero for Community Schools. We must recover from our losses, build upon our successes and embed a Community Schools model that will create a pathway to success for all of Newark’s children. The time is now, and we are seizing it.

Ras J. Baraka is the mayor of Newark, New Jersey and the former principal of the city’s Central High School.

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Ras Baraka

Ras J. Baraka is the mayor of Newark, New Jersey and the former principal of the city’s Central High School. See Archive