(This is a guest post by Tommy Luna, an 8th Grade Math Teacher and Grade Level Chair at KIPP’s Rise Academy in Newark, New Jersey. Mr. Luna is a Newark resident and started his teaching career in Elizabeth, N.J.)
Let’s be real, Newark often gets a bad rap as media attention tends to focus on the negatives in our city. And most of that narrative is told from people who don’t work here or live here who haven’t spent a moment in Newark. These naysayers may write us off, but will never get to see how easily my eighth-grader Kyzzhe can get lost in a book for hours, or how 12-year-old Edwin can work to get the perfect drum roll during practice, or see that moment when MKaila, a sophomore who has struggled with math, is the ONLY person to solve our very first system of equations problem.
Outsiders may never get to see this, but we do all the time. Every single day, we teachers, through our kids and our awesome families, witness the truth. Newark has some of the best kids in the state, backed by some of the most supportive families in one of the strongest communities in the country. That is the narrative that our kids, families, and city deserve because it is the truth.
For our schools to truly be community schools, we have to be willing to go outside school walls and engage with the community that we are a part of. That’s why you’ll frequently see KIPP NJ teachers out and about. We know that it takes a village, and it would be a disservice to assume our schools are all the village our kids need.
Over the past few years, I’ve gotten to really engage in this work with Newark. My experiences in building community relationships have me present at Newark Board of Education meetings, at forums with candidates and local officials, at community events and other gatherings. And through this work, I’ve met some amazing members of our community and have shared the work we do on behalf of the families of Newark at KIPP NJ. On the other hand, it has allowed me to come face to face with some of our harshest critics and not only get their perspective on their perception of KIPP NJ but also allowed me to quickly dispel a number of myths about charters in general.
And to dispel those myths, I share my own story. My story of being an eighth-grade math teacher for 100 general education students, as well as the special education teacher for a group of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders with significant special needs. The story of numerous extracurricular activities I’ve started and run like fencing, drum club, and comedy movie series. I share stories of Edwin, Mkaila, Kyzzhe, and the hundreds of other students in our school. I share stories about how our school has partnered with other schools and organizations in the neighborhood to share resources because our commitment to Newark’s students goes beyond the classroom walls. These stories provide the narrative of what we do and what is possible. Through this, we build connections and shine a light on what we mean when we say, “Work hard. Be nice.”
Teaching is the best work there is and it is an honor to do this work in Newark. At KIPP NJ, we do it because we love our students and we love this community. And to Newark, we are grateful for the love you have shown back to us.