Voices From the Parent Summit: An Interview with Jabbar Wilkins.

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During this past weekend at the New Jersey Parent Summit (see here for an overview) I chatted with many parents. During the next two weeks I’m posting some of the interviews: See the first one here. In some cases I’ve added links and editorial comments to add context. Here’s Jabbar Wilkins, father of seven (three biological children and four step-children) who grew up and still lives in Camden.

Laura: Jabbar, would you tell me about your school experiences in Camden?

Jabbar: I grew up in Camden in a really rough neighborhood — I was the youngest of three kids with a single mom — and I started getting in trouble at about age 15 because my father did jail time. My schools were just places where I didn’t fit in. The classes were really packed and there was no one-on-one attention. I showed up but that was about it.

Laura: So you really weren’t engaged with learning.

Jabbar: No, I wasn’t. And it got worse because I ended up doing three years in juvie [juvenile detention]. The thing about juvie is that it can turn you into a monster. There are no programs to help you, no school, just a lot of kids getting beat up.

Laura: What happened once you got out?

Jabbar: My mom, who was very strict — I love that about her, wouldn’t change a thing — didn’t want me to go to high school in Camden so I went to the Edison Job Corps, a vocational school. That was great, but things in Camden weren’t. A lot of my friends were getting in trouble, dying. But once I had my first child at 22, I started hanging around with different people.

I also started to get involved with city politics. Hey, I met Cory Booker! But did you know that the last seven mayors of Camden were corrupt? My city isn’t into politics so it’s easy for officials to make fake promises. People don’t care what goes on behind the scenes and they don’t come out to vote.

Laura: Why don’t they vote?

Jabbar: Because people know it won’t make a difference. Politicians are all corrupt in Camden and voters expect nothing different. Why bother? But there was one time when I was impressed: Barack Obama came to Camden when he was running the first time in 2008. He said it was one of the main cities he wanted to change, and this was inspiring to so many people I know. He came to the Crock Center, the Boys and Girls Club, and gave a shout-out to Mastery Charter Schools. That made me want to send my kids there.

 Laura: Where do your kids go to school?

Jabbar: All seven of them are at Mastery — my oldest just graduated and she has a full ride to Rutgers. And she’s only 16!

Laura: How did that happen?

Jabbar: Mastery has a program where high school kids can spend the month of July on college campuses getting credits for classes. Last year she went to Glassboro State and this year she’s at Rowen. Now she has a full ride to Rutgers through the  STAR program.. And one of my stepsons — he’s 14 — Mastery helped him get his working papers and got him a job as a counselor this summer at a recreation center so he’ll get work experience.

A lot of people in Camden, they choose the dollar over the career. I don’t have many friends who went to college — I can count them on one hand. It’s different now.

Laura: How are your other kids doing?

Jabbar: My kids are doing great! My son is on the honor roll. He just finished third grade and he is ranked 40th in the whole state on reading [on the ELA PARCC test]. He’s brilliant! He loves to read, especially about NASA, and wants to be a police officer. The kids have such a great bond with their teachers.

Laura: What is it about Mastery that you like so much?

Jabbar: My son started living with me when he was in first grade and it’s easier to see progression when you’re with your children every day. Anyway, I know how easy it is to slip and was wary about that happening to my own kid. But the big difference at Mastery is not just the bond with teachers but that they do amazing things for students. They’re always doing something: afterschool programs, cooking classes, field trips. And, the thing is, they make my son feel so good about his academic progress. They don’t just send report cards home — they throw big events for kids who make the honor roll and they are able to accommodate his higher reading level.

And the other big thing is that they welcome parents into the programs — there are so many programs that are just for parents. Myself, I run a food bank every third Monday at Mastery High School on Erie Street.

Laura: Do you see changes in Camden since you were a kid growing up there?

Jabbar: Camden is way better than it was — nothing like it was when I was growing up. There’s a new police department, more programs for kids, a lot more internships and jobs. So many people are buying into the city. I’m a little scared that they’re going to price people out. But the good thing is that’s happening in University City where all the drug addicts are so it’s sort of fleshing them out.

Laura: I know there’s some opposition to the charter and renaissance schools in Camden. Do you see any of that?

Jabbar: Oh, I had some people knocking on my door asking me to sign a petition saying that Mastery isn’t any different than the traditional district schools. They were going door-to-door talking to lots of my neighbors. I didn’t sign the petition. They are outsiders. I’m a fair person. I would never say something bad about something good.

Laura: Have you heard about the lawsuit that says charter schools contribute to segregation? 

Jabbar: It doesn’t bother me. Most of the kids my children go to school with live around the corner. Before charters, it was the same kids. I don’t know why someone would think it’s better for them to go to schools with white kids. It wouldn’t be different, they’d just miss their friends.

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