Meet Erica Beverett of Lumberton, New Jersey. A Head Start teacher in Trenton, Erica is attending the NJ Parent Summit this weekend for the Leadership Track, which prepares parents to engage other parents in becoming strong advocates for their children.
Erica didn’t use to live in Lumberton (Burlington County). She and her two children, now fourteen and thirteen, lived in Willingboro, about fifteen minutes away. On a personal note, I used to cover Willingboro on this blog all the time: its proximity to the high-achieving district of Moorestown exemplifies N.J.’s zip code-differentiated inequity. We buy our way into school districts and if you can’t pay the freight you get the dregs.
Willingboro, with all due respect, is the dregs. Has been for a long time. The DOE’s most recent data shows that at Willingboro High School 15.5 percent of students achieved proficiency in English Language Arts and 20.3 percent achieved proficiency in math. Seven and a half percent of students enroll in an AP course, compared to 41.5 percent throughout the state and sixteen months after graduation only 52 percent of students are enrolled in two or four-year colleges.
That’s not good enough for Erica’s children. When it was time for her oldest to attend kindergarten, she sent him to a private school but this was financially unsustainable. As she put it, “it was a hefty cost.” But then she heard of the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program (IPSCP), where districts can volunteer to open up empty seats to children within the county. This was Erica’s first choice. It seemed perfect: stay in Willingboro and retain the same low cost of living but avoid Willingboro Public Schools. (Obviously, moving to Moorestown wasn’t an option where the median home price there is $722,500.)
But Erica discovered that, promises to the contrary, the IPSCP wasn’t what was promised. “Parents are presented with this great gift of ‘you can send your child everywhere’ but then,” she explained, “there’s nothing. It’s almost as if the DOE says ‘here’s our checklist; we have one for every other county so we’ve fulfilled our responsibility.” The only district with an open seat was in Washington Township, which she said was “ridiculously far.”
Her other option was to move and so she did, to Lumberton. “How’s it going?” I asked. “Pretty well,” she said. “The kids seem pretty motivated and they’re both honor’s students. My son is struggles in math but this past year his teacher was so gracious that he opened his door to him and and another student every morning at 7 am, an hour early, to help them.”
So, I asked, why are you here? “I want a seat at the table with the DOE,” she said firmly. “I want to suggest that all districts with empty seats be required to open those seats to children from other districts. I want legislation that addresses this.” And, with NJ Parent Summit’s Leadership Track, she hopes to hone her skills to increase school choice for families like hers.
She reminds me, “I’m a preschool teacher in Trenton at the Children’s Home Society NJ Head Start. I understand what children need and what to look for in schools. I want to help other parents in places like Trenton and Willingboro learn to advocate for their own children. I want to engage them so that they can become excited about education reform and become more involved in their children’s education. After all, we are our children’s first educators.”