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James Wright Jr. grew up in Newark, N.J., graduated from Boston University with a degree in political science, and now teaches science at the same public school he attended, North Star Academy Charter School. He is a candidate for Newark’s Board of Education.
I live and teach in one of the nation’s poorest cities with some of the lowest educational outcomes for its 40,000 students.
As a Black man in the classroom, I see how much my community suffered through Covid. Many of my students lost family members and lived through some very scary times. Many of them forgot even how to be in school, and consequently brought back with them gaping academic holes.
But here’s what’s really important: they are more than ready for the comeback, and we do children a disservice if we keep blaming their underperformance on Covid.
The fact is that in many cities like mine, academic performance was unacceptably low way before Covid.
In my city, Newark, N.J., 8% of Black children can do math on grade level and 21% can read on grade level. That’s unacceptable. And that’s not Covid.
There are three things we need to commit to right now:
The first thing we need to do is get reading right. I can’t say this strongly enough. There’s no excuse for the large majority of a city’s school children being unable to read when we know how learning to read actually works. Learning how to read is increasingly being recognized as a civil right, with NAACP chapters across the nation joining campaigns and even lawsuits against school systems to ensure Black children are taught to read the way science tells us is most effective.
When I look at Newark literacy rates that are well under 30%, we are clearly violating our children’s civil right to read and we need to move expeditiously to address that crisis. Just across the river in New York City, the chancellor of the country’s largest school system recently acknowledged that its schools have been “teaching reading wrong.” We need that kind of humility, acknowledgment, and commitment for change when it comes to reading.
The second area we need to focus on is college enrollment. Don’t tell me college isn’t for everyone—I already know and respect that. But when people say college isn’t for everyone, I want to check that they don’t just mean the Black and brown kids who didn’t get an equal-footing education in grades K through 12 and now couldn’t succeed in college even if they wanted to.
College ought to be a real choice. But when I look at the college enrollment rate in 2021 for Newark public school seniors of only 33%, I have to wonder if that really represents true choices. I don’t think 67% of Newark’s students decided that a 4-year college isn’t for them. That number tells me that a vast number of brilliant minds did not get what they needed from their K-12 education, and that’s just wrong.
Finally, we need an informed and active electorate. In my city, fewer than 5% of eligible voters actually cast a ballot in the school board election. That is an entire community collectively sighing their hopelessness. That’s an entire community saying ‘my vote doesn’t matter’ and ‘this is just the way it is.’
I reject that hopelessness, but I understand it. After years of dismal academic results, the community thinks—what can actually change?
We have a lot of work to do, but the last thing we can do is despair. And we certainly can’t hide behind Covid any more.