Voices From the NJ Parent Summit: Nicole Harris Says Parents Have The Right To Choose the Best Schools in Their Community — and That Choice May Be Different for Each Child.

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During the first weekend in August, Project Ready hosted the New Jersey Parent Summit (see here for an overview). I chatted with many parents and this is the last of the posted interviews: See earlier ones herehereherehere, and here.  In some cases I’ve added links and editorial comments to add context. This interview is with Nicole Harris, a mother of three who runs an afterschool program for 1,000 New Jersey students.

Laura: Can you tell me a bit about yourself?

Niki: Of course. I’ve been married to my husband, Donie Harris, for nine years. I have three children, ages 17, 16, and 12. The 17-year-old is my stepson, Luis, who lives in Lyndhurst. He is an incredible athlete and he’s had a pleasant experience in the public schools there, with a good balance between school and recreation.

Laura: Where do your other children go to school?

Niki: My daughter Noah-Simone goes to North Star Academy, part of the Uncommon Charter School network. She’s been there since kindergarten; she’s part of the founding class that went all the way K-12. I did worry about Noah because she has a lot of anxiety, as well as a stutter, and I wanted her to enjoy school as much as Luis did. There are such different educations and expectations for them! Luis has a twinkle in his eye and I wanted that for Noah.

Laura: Did the rigor at North Star begin in kindergarten?

Niki: Yes! From day one she worked hard every day. The elementary school was so great. I liked the structure of the school, and I knew my child would be safe when I dropped her off everyday. Donie and I really saw the value of North Star in 3d grade when both Noah and Luis were preparing for the standardized ASK tests. Luis had a workbook. Noah had been preparing since 2nd grade. They were sitting at the table together and Luis said to Noah, “what is an array?” Noah explained it to him and then completed the work in his book within minutes! Noah was so far ahead of him! So we made the decision to keep her at North Star and supplement the sports and recreation she was missing on our own. 

When she got to middle school in 5th grade I really did worry it was too much. But the principal, the teachers, all the staff, actually, put every support in place for her. She had such a strong support system at North Star! When she went to school each morning, the teacher would ask her if she felt she was up for speaking in class and she could say, “I feel like you can call on me today” or “I’d rather you didn’t.” Middle school was definitely harder and less pleasant for Noah, but with support from my husband and me, our “village,” and our North Star family, she made it through just fine.

When she got to high school, she just loved 9th grade. Luis loved his high school too.  They were so excited! I asked them, “what’s so cool about it?” Noah said she liked the “freedom” each student had and she liked that the principal treated the students like young adults. Luis said, “I have swimming every day and math just a couple times a week.” Now, both are brilliant, smart kids. But they wanted different things. For us as parents, we struggled with the rigor of North Star and the lightness of rigor at Lyndhurst. Luis never had homework on weekends. Noah had homework every weekend, every school break. Our house was divided.

Laura: What did you decide to do?

Niki: It was Noah who decided that she wanted to stay at North Star. I thought it important to give her options and let her see what else was out there.

Laura: What about your youngest child?

Niki: That’s Nas. He went to North Star in kindergarten and it wasn’t the right choice for him. He’s my child who won’t be helped by rigor. He will shut down. He needs more encouragement. So we sent him to 13th Avenue School [a Newark district school where student proficiency is below district averages]. It was a very bad experience. I mean, in kindergarten he colored an apple blue and the teacher gave him a gold star! Talk about low expectations. We took him out after a month and he got into North Star through sibling preference. That one month at 13th Avenue School put him so far behind his classmates at North Star — it took him the whole year to catch up!

Laura: How is Nas doing now?

Niki: Well, we actually moved to Roselle [a district about 13 miles from Newark]. Since Nas was attending Roselle Public Schools, we wondered if Noah would be more comfortable there. We were impressed because when his class was studying the Holocaust he actually met a Holocaust survivor and for Noah it was all literacy.  We visited the district school. Noah asked about the average GPA at the school: It was 2.88. She asked about Roselle High School’s average SAT score: It was 880. Now, Noah took the PSAT at age 15 and scored 1120! She looked over at us and mouthed, “Let’s go.” This was her decision. North Star is a “tough love” school but that was her choice. And, let me tell you, she wrote such a powerful personal statement for her college applications.

Noah has struggled but she’s not broken. That’s the impact of parent advocacy. I am the example of exercising parent autonomy. Each of my children have different needs and I have the right to choose the best fit for each of them.

Laura: What do you do professionally? 

Niki: I’m the Executive Director of After-School All-Stars, a grant-funded non-profit that provides free afterschool programs for students in New Jersey. We’re part of a national organization that collectively serves 90,000 students. In New Jersey I oversee programs for 1,000 students.

Laura: Just one more question: I’m sure you’re aware that there’s a lawsuit that claims that charter schools like North Star increase segregation. What’s your take on that?

Niki: I don’t believe we are segregated because of charter schools. We’re segregated because of socio-economic factors including housing, job-market, and, of course, poor education. Charters have nothing to do with that. Some charters – like North Star – work to close those gaps, and parents like me are grateful for that. We were lucky — when North Star had lotteries there were 76 slots and Noah was number 76. Now, if we could afford to live in Millburn or Livingston where there are high-quality schools, that would be fine but that’s not the case. There’s still not enough high-quality schools in inner-city neighborhoods. Parents need options. It is our right as parents to choose the strongest schools in our community for each of our children. Poor schools should never be an option. It’s not about segregation. It’s about public school quality.

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