Friday, May 19, 2017

#SOL17: Newark, 20 Years Later

4th graders creating a map

2nd grade teacher reading aloud a novel
20 years ago this month, I accepted the position of the director of literacy for Newark Public Schools in New Jersey. I was in my 30s and had just finished my dissertation and would defend it that next spring. The job was somewhat overwhelming given the academic needs that seemed so prevalent, the pressure heaved upon children and staff to produce academic gains as measured on a state assessment, and the scale.  When I worked there the enrollment was about 50,000 students across 80 schools. Working with staff and students in Newark was  the most important work I would do while employed in public schools.  What I didn't understand well until today is that the years there would fundamentally change me, allow me to see whiteness in ways I simply had not and prepare me to be, perhaps, a better mom to my own son who would be born two years later. What was most important, without question, were the children and teens who populated the schools. 20 years later, I still know that to be true.

Newark was a source of love.

4th graders from NPS reading Hawthorne's The Pomegranate Seeds during a Greek Mythology unit.

Working in Newark allowed me to be a minority--as much as one white woman from Ireland might be. For the first time in my working life there were daily references to music, art, literature, food, dance, and historical and contemporary happenings that I did not understand, and needed to learn. Working in Newark and becoming friends with so many there allowed me to (un)learn some matters of race as I had been taught and to experience from others there the nature and pulse of profound joy and kindness that often were connected to community and faith.

20 years later, the published news out of Newark continues to be more desperate than kind, and often is limited to recounting dangerous situations and terrible deaths. The myriad of caring acts that more typify the different communities there are lost or under-reported. And frankly, we are all the worse for that.

I still work in Newark helping schools there to better ensure the development of fine readers and writers. It is such doable work and some days it feels a bit frustrating to know how important these learning changes could be had and to not be able to influence the public schools who seem bent on chasing academic success with products, not people. If products alone could alter performance trajectories, large scale need would no longer be an issue. In the last two years of Rob's life, before he was diagnosed with cancer, he worked with me in the city. He told me more than once that he understood why I found the place, the people, and the work so compelling.


  1. Thank you. Your stories are also compelling Keep writing, keep sharing, keep shining a light on those things that you find appealing and that capture you and your attention.

  2. Thank you for what you do. To a degree, I could relate to your experience. While college hunting with my son, we went to a Historic Black College. I was the only white person at the picnic we were invited to that afternoon. I was never part of a minority until that day. However brief, it was eye opening. My children are among the only black population on the island-part of rural living in Maine.

    1. I imagine your children have many stories to tell. I find that my son does where we live. He is one of the few Asians living in our town. I wish beyond wishing that we were a country where being white wasn't a privilege. We are the worse for it.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.