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Learning to Fly -- and Fall -- at Newark's Quitman Street Renew School

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Credit: Amanda Brown
“We need someone strong to be the peak,” Quitman cheerleading coach Stephanie Ruff says. “Nydresha is the star. We have to put the star on display.”

“We need someone strong to be the peak,” said Stephanie Ruff, one of Quitman’s two cheerleading coaches and the school’s parent liaison. “Nydresha is the star. We have to put the star on display.”

The most difficult of the stunts, called the yo-yo, involved three other girls throwing Nydresha up to dive face first toward the floor into a somersault. None of the other 18 teams performing in the tournament would dare to even attempt it.

For Quitman to win, Nydresha would have to land on her feet, over and over again. But whether or not that happened wasn’t entirely up to her. The coordination of each of the other girls played a part.

In the early days of the season, Nydresha’s mother was furious when she fell on the hard floor and hurt her back, informing the coaches that Nydresha would quit if they couldn’t provide a mat for her to practice on. The week before the June 7 tournament, Nydresha was thrown so high she whacked her right elbow into the ceiling of the Quitman music room.

Her situation was, in many ways, emblematic of her school itself. Quitman’s teachers and administrators are responsible for student performance that is a result of both their instruction and leadership and a million other factors beyond their control, such as whether someone’s father went to jail or there was enough food on the dinner table. However the pieces fall, they, and she, put themselves on the line.

Comings and Goings

Erskine Glover will remember the 2013-2014 academic year as “the year of FMLA.” The acronym stands for Family and Medical Leave Act, the federal law that entitles employees to a job-protected leave to take care of serious medical conditions, newborn children, and ailing relatives. More times than Glover cares to recall in the past year, he signed the FMLA paperwork for a staff member to take time off.

The fourth-grade math and science teacher was out the last three months of the year after falling and tearing a ligament in her knee, making her unable to climb the stairs to her third-floor classroom. The vice principal left a month early for surgery to reconstruct her foot and ankle. The social worker had a baby. A prekindergarten teacher’s husband died. Nydresha’s English teacher missed much of the year due to hypertension and surgery to remove what turned out to be a benign tumor.

Then there was Glover himself, missing days to care for his wife when she fell ill and had debilitating sciatica. This summer, he had resurfacing surgery on his right hip, less than a year after another operation to have his left hip replaced.

FMLA is necessary, Glover knows, but the absences frustrated him as they interrupted classroom progress.

Two school years ago, growth was stunted by five teachers quitting midyear, primarily due to job-related stresses. For the most part this past year, the coming and going wasn’t anyone’s fault. It just was what it was -- with a few unfortunate exceptions.

In May, Glover and a new seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher mutually agreed for the teacher to leave because he couldn’t control his classroom. In early June, Nydresha’s homeroom and social studies teacher was placed on paid leave, pending the investigation of a misconduct allegation. According to Nydresha, not much learning occurred after that in social studies, which had been one of her two favorite subjects, along with English. On the third-to-last day of school, with many of her classmates absent, she and six other kids sat watching skydiving on television, followed by a show on Guinness World Records for things like the longest wedding dress train (4,468 feet at the time of the filming). Earlier in the year, she had enjoyed learning about ancient Greece and Egypt.

The 14-Hour Problem

Despite the disruptions, Quitman’s climate is generally one of people working incredibly hard. Beginning at 8 a.m. and ending at 3:30 p.m., the academic day is a full hour longer than in most U.S. schools. Many students come early for breakfast, and through early June, about 80 of 100 students targeted for tutoring would stay at school until 5 p.m. The school offers activities including track, basketball, art club, music club, technology club, and archery club.

But even with all that, Glover still has what he refers to as his “5 p.m. to 7 a.m. problem.” During that 14-hour span, he has students facing every societal challenge imaginable, detracting from their ability to learn. One morning when a child had an emotional meltdown so severe he had to be taken from Quitman in an ambulance, the saddest part to Glover was that it was just another day. The staff isn’t immune, either. A teacher’s aide from the neighborhood moved away midyear after being shot in the hand and leg last fall while out with her brother, who was caught up in a dispute.

Nydresha, who lives on the top floor of a three-story house with her mother, enjoys hanging out with friends, and her mom encourages her to turn off the television and her Xbox and go out. Yet outside is also where the drama she loathes is prone to occur, spilling over into school the next day. Most of it is over little stuff, she explained: “‘Who did what with who?’ and ‘you owe me money’ and ‘where’s my stuff at?’ and anytime people get drunk.” Nydresha doesn’t feel particularly safe in her neighborhood as a result. After a big fight, which occurs once every few months, she said matter-of-factly, she’ll stay inside for approximately two days to be sure no one will “bust out a gun.”

“Sometimes, when it’s nice and quiet outside, I feel it’s gonna be a great day,” she said. “But at night, when it sunsets, there is all this drama.”

That’s why Nydresha would like to move to Hawaii, though she worries about the possibility of a tsunami there.

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