Reverend David Jefferson, Sr. Esq is the senior pastor of the Metropolitan Baptist Church, the largest Congregation in the City of Newark. This first appeared at nj.com.
For decades, Newarkers have witnessed firsthand the harsh realities of our state’s public education system, specifically the deep inequalities people of color face. Whether battling an “achievement gap,” the “School-to-Prison Pipeline,” poison lead in our school water, or the decrepit buildings many children call their public education home, our city’s parents have faced many obstacles and served on the front lines in a battle to provide hope and opportunity to their children.
The result of these and other challenges has had a clear impact. Without a dependable public education system, Newark parents are leaving our city’s school district en masse. Newarkers are finding educational opportunities in other towns, investing in private schools, or moving to our city’s successful public charter schools.
Since the pandemic first reared its head, an even deeper set of challenges have emerged, where significant learning loss is now the standard. State test scores are at an all-time low. Truancy is at an all-time high. Teacher recruitment has become exceedingly more difficult. And the inability to effectively address the digital divide has further expanded the haves and the have-nots.
In the communities and neighborhoods I serve, there has been a sense that the learning loss that has taken place in Newark will never be addressed. During the last school year, parents and members of my congregation have voiced deep concerns about the state of our public education in Newark. They are frustrated with the lack of ownership from local leaders in Newark to address these issues.
There is real anger as our governor, whom they re-elected, continues to ignore Newark. And there is a yearning for a vision, or a strategic plan, that will bring comfort that the needs of our children are being addressed.
Last spring, right after the end of the school year, my congregation hosted an education community forum to discuss these concerns, bringing together a who’s who of diverse Newark leaders — from all sides of the political and social spectrum. Something interesting at the event occurred: the usual blame games were put aside.
Even with so many challenges to face, the discussion points brought to the event were inspiring and hopeful. We did not hear the typical scapegoating, ideological arguments, or the special interests talking points usually associated with these kinds of discussions. This moment provided those who participated with a valuable moment of clarity — that the people of Newark demand a unified community effort to improve our education system. The ideas provided made me reflect on the words of John, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
The people of Newark are bringing the light to this moment of darkness. The communities of Newark are united as never before. As we look to the new school year, we must seize and leverage this moment of unity. We must implement shared solutions and support our parents at all costs.
For example, one of the constant themes that unify the people of Newark is the need for high dosage tutoring. Tutoring works, and there is a real hunger for it right now in Newark, and it is our moral responsibility to respond to this call to action with substance and support.
One of the critical answers to addressing learning loss is here in Newark. We have some of the single best tutoring programs in the country. Newark’s own Great Oak Legacy Charter School was built on an innovative tutoring model that has been nationally recognized and has helped the school regularly send 80% to 90% of its graduates to college. We must prioritize this kind of best practice right now and work together to implement solutions we can universally agree on.
Second, Newark parents want to be a part of a movement for change. There is a mass consensus in Newark that we need a groundswell of activity and involvement from parents to help tackle issues such as learning loss. Newark parents are not looking for others to do the job. They want to get in the game but specific plans need to be presented to them. We must empower them with information to assist this effort. As we look to the fall, greater emphasis must be made on how we communicate, inform, motivate and encourage our parents.
We must turn our “Brick City” into an “Education City.” It can start with adequately managing the influx of federal dollars and using it to create a massive city-wide movement to get dollars into our kid’s classrooms. This is a unique moment where the funding is available, but we must bring greater accountability and transparency to how this money is spent.
Throughout history, change has come when people in pain take the mantle from our elected leaders and work together as one. We are seeing this attitude develop in Newark right now. This city’s light, leadership, and activism have always come from its people. Right now, Newark stands more unified, engaged, and motivated than ever before. The question for our elected leaders is whether they are ready to provide the people with the tools to succeed and address these issues head-on.