Student voices are too often missing from debates over public education in New Jersey. One exception has been in Newark, where student activists have taken over administrative offices and openly protested the state’s operation of the district.
This week, a quieter but no less compelling presentation took place in Newark, where five high school students spoke about their experiences in the city’s schools, both district and charter, and their own dreams for their education.
In both a scripted theatrical presentation and subsequent Q&A, the students lamented opportunities they fear have been wasted and applauded the individual teachers and principals who supported and guided them.
And they had a blueprint for improvement -- some ideas were practical, others less so, but all authentic.
Titled “Speaking Up and Talking Back: Newark Students Sound Off on Education,” the event was held at Rutgers University and hosted by the Newark Trust for Education. The students were each part of the trust’s High School Policy Advisory Group.
Following are excerpts:
All: While we can point to many schools that are doing well, we want more. We want a system where every child learns and every child succeeds. Hire more teachers that love learning and encourage students to love learning and inspire learners to succeed. How much longer can our schools continue with limited resources, and environmental distractions?
Aaliyah Aemani Barnes, junior, Bard High School: The 21st century is already spinning towards the need for more technological prowess, while we try to catch up, and student testing replaces genuine teaching and learning time. I'm depressed.
Amer Aliamer, senior, People’s Preparatory Charter School: As I relive these past four years, I realize just how many flaws the school system has. Although I appreciate the free education, I notice teachers who lack experience and mindlessly reteach material day in and day out. Students conditioned to think it best to mock and insult those wiser than themselves, rather than go the extra mile and learn their secrets. All this, combined with an ever-diminishing amount of materials, be it staff, textbooks, whatever, result in a generation dubbed as failures and hopeless figures.
Aaliyah: Don’t get me wrong, I do well in school, but I don’t always get to strengthen my academic understanding using creative avenues. I simply listen, listen, listen, and read the same passages 50 times to memorize, but when do I get to show what I know in a way that makes sense to me. In a way that makes it easy for me to eloquently relay my message? (A teacher) gave me an F last week for expressing my thoughts on Shakespeare using rhythm and flow instead of speaking soft and low, like she always wants us to. ‘Cause a little boisterousness counts as disrespect and means for unrest.
Dennis Rodriguez, junior, Newark Leadership Academy: We are the children to survive – even with such gloomy statistics about education and public schools, many of our students are succeeding, thriving and advancing. As you know, there are usually at least two sides to every story! And the students exercised that right with passion, fire, doubt, and other points of view that also had to be acknowledged.
Shasa Genus, junior, Westside Side High School: I am important. No one will get me down. My past will not define my future. My success is predestined. Failure is not an option. I will not stop until I have all the resources I fully deserve. For once I will be in the principal’s office for all the right reasons, I must get help planning my future, I will be consistent and i will search for help. If help can’t find me I will find help, because chances are, I will and must be somebody.
Amer Aliarmer: Yes… I know school is meant for learning. not for fun or for pursuing our wildest desires. At least that's what we are told. But to be honest, where else are we supposed to explore our realistic and unrealistic pursuits? Where else are we supposed to make mistakes and learn from it. The school structural policy has made it difficult for a student to grow and mature and enjoy the opportunities that education has to offer.
All: “Here are some things we would like to see:
Customize classes that allow students to course shop. Let students choose classes that interest them and are relevant to their future.
Create a college-ready course that responds to our needs and helps us become college-ready and prepared for life after high school. Have it include SAT/ACT preparation for all students beginning in the 9th grade.
Hold mandatory college tours, including visits to Ivy League schools. Teach students how to write college level papers. Invite professors from college to our classrooms. Expose students to a day in the life of a college student where they would get to visit campuses and get a real sense of what college is like.
Invite educators, visionaries, change makers and visitors from outside Newark to help us spread the word.
Develop a new initiative that allows for product-testing for new teachers.
Also, include students in the hiring process of teachers so that we can make sure there is a good fit.
Ensuring that every high school student has a tutor. Do this through adopting a peer-tutoring program, which brings in alumni to mentor current students.
Revamp the role of the guidance counselor, who we believe is critical to our success
Increase the number of guidance counselors in our school and train these counselors to have more access to information and innovative programs, which will help us find our way.