Voices From the Parent Summit: Shayvonne Anderson Overcomes Personal Tragedy and Explains How Newark Got Beyond The “Charter vs. Traditional” School Mindset.

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Shayvonne Anderson,  a lifelong Newark resident and mother of ten children, was elected this year to the Newark School Board as part of the Unity Slate. I interviewed her during the New Jersey Parent Summit (see here for an overview).  For other interviews with attendees, here are Ruthven Haneef Auguste and Jabbar Wilkins. In some cases I’ve added links and editorial comments to add context.

Laura: Shayvonne, will you tell me a little about yourself and your own school experiences in Newark?

Shayvonne: I was born and raised here and went to Newark Public Schools all my life: Chancellor Avenue School, Harriet Tubman, West Side High School. Back then it was rough and, actually, I never graduated high school. I experienced a lot of trauma growing up, including sexual abuse, and that really impeded my academic progress and messed me up mentally.  I left home and stayed with my grandmother but something had to go and that was school. I dropped out when I was 16.

Laura: You’ve been through so much. 

Shayvonne: Yes, and it didn’t end there. I ended up in a relationship, got married really young, and endured domestic violence. I lost a brother to suicide, which was an additional trauma.

Laura: And yet here you are, a leader and an advocate.

Shayvonne: Yes. Listen: I have ten children, plus a three year-old grandchild. And I started to wonder how I could use my bad experiences for good? How can I channel that energy into something positive? How can I make sure that my kids  — that other kids as well –don’t suffer those same experiences I did? All those challenges transformed me into a parent advocate, a cheerleader for children so they wouldn’t have those experiences. This is why I tell my story: It’s freeing for me and healing for other people. I want to bring attention to social-emotional learning, to emotional trauma. 

Laura: And that’s why you ran for the Newark School Board?

Shayvonne: Yes. Whoever is coming in contact with children must be able to help them! Kids can’t learn unless we prioritize their mental health. When I leave this Board, I hope that some system will be in place so that before kids are suspended from school we are are asking, “what is going on with this child?” “How can we help them and get to know their families?” If you can help the family, you can help the child.

Laura: Can you give me an example?

Shayvonne: Sure. One of my sons was classified “emotionally disturbed.” But he wasn’t! I had to go in there and advocate for him so he had the correct diagnosis, I had to use my voice. I want to teach other parents to use their voices too, help them learn that they must do research so if your kid is classified, he or she has the right label. If your child is depressed, why is he or she depressed? 

Parents are the experts. I know my son and so I’m the expert, even though schools are so quick to slap labels on kids. I speak up for kids whose parents don’t speak for them and then teach parents to do it themselves.

Laura: That’s a pretty compelling reason to be on the School Board.

Shayvonne: Why wouldn’t I be on the Board? Look, I’m not a politician, I’m a public servant. Every day I tell myself I’m doing this for the city. The key to making things better is to give everyone access to better education.

Laura: Where have your children gone to school?

Shayvonne: Some of them have been to Newark district schools but now two of them go to KIPP.

Laura: Was it a problem during your campaign that your kids go to a charter school?

Shayvonne: I don’t see it as a problem and most people didn’t care. We’re really getting beyond the charter vs. traditional mindset in Newark. That’s what the Unity Slate is about: a public school is a public school. I won’t take my kids away from what’s working for them. This isn’t about adults and their politics. It’s about our children .

Laura: What do you think of the new superintendent, Roger León?

Shayvonne: Oh, Superintendent León is doing a great job. I believe in his vision. He says himself, “I’m not here just for the 37,000 school kids [the enrollment of Newark district schools] but for the 55,000 kids [total enrollment of Newark district and charter students].

Laura: It’s amazing to me that you find so much time for your  school board duties with ten kids to raise!

Shayvonne: Oh, I’ve got even more on my plate. I went back and received my high school diploma and now I’m writing my first book. It’s called “The Journey to Healing Her” and it’s about my story, about how I didn’t just run through my obstacles but jumped over them, how I turned my pain into passion. I remember where I came from. I also mentor young ladies.

I’m also speaking at a conference later this year for sexual abuse survivors. I know too many people who have gone through what I’ve survived. It’s so prevalent. I hope that by sharing my story I can help someone else, give other people courage. You may be in the space of being a survivor but that doesn’t mean you’re a victim. Just look at me!

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