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I first met Shennell McCloud, a tireless activist for the children and families of Newark, when she worked for KIPP New Jersey serving as Director of Recruitment and then as Director of Advocacy. We bonded personally over shared stories of our experiences with big-city public education (she in Newark, me in New York City) and having two children very close together. We’ve worked together professionally through her annual NJ Parent Summit and other Newark-based education-informed initiatives. Shennell and her husband Walter have always lived in Newark, where they now reside with their two children, Avon and Adonis.
This past weekend we chatted about Shennell’s new endeavor, a grant-funded non-profit called Project Ready that launches this week. Project Ready aims to provide the Newark community, says Shennell, “With a platform to engage in 232,000 actions that will secure and protect high quality education. We believe Newark is at a critical moment, where we have regained local control of our schools. If we’re going to continue to move forward as a city, we need families engaged in decision-making when it comes to our schools.”
Here’s an edited version of our conversation about her plans for this new community advocacy group.
Laura: I know that you plan to implement a number of initiatives through Project Ready. What’s the first one?
Shennell: We have a very clear goal for the Project Ready Vote by Mail Initiative: to have 1,000 people in Newark — mostly women, we expect — to register to vote by mail. Did you know that in 2018 Essex County had the second lowest vote by mail turnout? 8.8 percent! Camden had over 22 percent. In Essex County, and our low registry interferes with our voice at election time.
Laura: You’re like Michelle Obama, with her #WhenWeAllVote initiative!
Shennell: Yes, I was inspired by her amazing campaign! Project Ready will focus on more than voter registration, although that’s the necessary first step. Many women here struggle with multiple challenges, like single motherhood and holding several jobs. The lowest participation in elections is because of young women like me who struggle to make it to the polls. Just about anything can happen to uproot a plan to vote. But if you’re registered to vote by mail you just cut that line. Our voices are heard in a seamless way.
Here’s a data point for you: There are over 280,000 people who can vote in Newark. However, at our last school board election only 20,000 votes were cast. Since each voter chooses three candidates, that’s less than 7,000 voters showing up at the polls. We have to activate our voices!
Let me tell you a story. Before I was starting up Project Ready, I was working to get out the vote for last year’s school board election. I met a guy and asked him what he knew about the candidates. He said, “I’m just going to vote for the person on this flyer.” That’s terrible! If we continue to either not vote or vote in uninformed ways, children like Avon and Adonis and their friends are in trouble.
Laura: But Newark’s problems aren’t solved simply by having people register to vote by mail, right?
Shennell: Of course not. That’s just the first step. Our endgame is to engage the entire community in action that will lead to high-quality education in Newark. We actually have four initiatives planned for our first year. Look, when we did the first Parent Summit three and a half years ago, it was completely focused on educational advocacy. What I realized after that first year was that parents and families need more than that. Our vision must be wider to meet their needs.
Laura: Tell me more about that.
Shennell: Our parents, who at the Summit come from all over New Jersey, want to learn how to be better parents, how to write a resume, how to juggle all their responsibilities. It’s only after we meet those needs that they’re ready to think about education. We have to set them up for a successful life before they become effective advocates.
And so we’ve created a series of programs. Parents can gauge their needs and enter at any level. The first, “Ready to Grow,” helps them get access to tools and resources that will help them create households where their children will thrive. “Ready to Organize” teaches parents to hold their schools accountable and activate participation, all to improve school quality. “Ready to Lead” offers a series of leadership development opportunities so that parents can become stronger leaders or even future candidates, all in the name of supporting and protecting high-quality education. Finally,there’s “Ready to Win,” which will help emerging leaders get on track for candidacy and community activism
Laura: And so parents emerge from this series of courses ready to advocate for high-quality schools throughout Newark. Are you specifically focused on charter schools?
Shennell: No. It doesn’t matter who runs the school; what matters is that the children enrolled there receive a top-notch education. This is personal. Avon will be ready for kindergarten in four years. When Walter and I list our choices on Newark’s universal enrollment form, we don’t want to feel like if we don’t get our first choice then we’re in trouble. I want all of our choices to be good choices. I want all our seats — regardless of governance, regardless of whether they’re charter or traditional — to be in high-quality classrooms. This is paramount. That’s why I decided to leave KIPP and start Project Ready. Our community has been holding back and it’s time to raise our voices!
Laura: People often refer to the “charter wars” in Newark. But you sound like that’s not an issue for you.
Shennell: Yes, it’s still part of local politics but I believe the conversation is shifting. Now people are talking about all parties coming together to work for all children in the city, reaching beyond the wall of charter vs. traditional. I see it happening. KIPP just worked with the district on professional development for teachers. The principal at West Side High School just shared critical ways to engaging parents. The issue of governance is becoming less of a distinction. It’s just about raising education quality throughout the city. Both charters and traditionals are part of that effort.
Laura: Can you share with readers a little bit about you and Walter’s experiences in Newark schools one generation ago?
Shennell: Sure! Walter went to Essex Catholic, but it was shut down in his junior year of high school. His mom got him a scholarship to St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City to finish up. I went to Avon Avenue School, and then my mom managed to slip me into Washington Academy in East Orange [a neighboring district]. We had to get there every morning really early to avoid security. Finally my mom found out that Uncommon Schools was starting North Star Academy and she said, “you have to go there!” I didn’t win the lottery but I was first on the waiting list and a spot opened up. So I went to North Star from sixth grade straight through high school.
Laura: Can you tell me how you plan to register 1,000 Newark residents to vote by mail by this Spring, in time for school board elections and primaries?
Shennell: All people have to do is go to our website (www.projectreadynj.org) and provide their name, address, and email. Within a week, Project Ready will send them an application to fill out and mail in to register to vote by mail. That’s it! We’ll even go to their homes and make sure the application gets where it needs to go. This isn’t just me: we have eight people on staff, six of whom are canvassers.
Our vision is a city where every child can go to a great public school, and that starts with raising our collective voice.