In the interest of giving NJ Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet and Gov. Murphy some (unsolicited) help in their Charter School Program Act Review (which, according to the web page, has closed off registration for community focus groups), I’ve been interviewing some parents about their public school experiences, both traditional and charter. This is an interview with Jasmine Morrison. You can see the first interview here. Scroll to the bottom for a video!
Laura: Jasmine, as a native Newarker can you tell me about your own experiences in Newark Public Schools (NPS)?
Jasmine: Sure. I grew up in Newark and all the kids in my family went to Peshine [now B.R.I.C.K. Peshine Academy]. But my parents took me out in 6th grade and sent me to a Catholic school called St. Lucy’s.
Laura: Why did they take you out of NPS?
Jasmine: It was becoming a wild west and I was scared to go to school. It was so dangerous. There was no safe haven. There were no rules. The teachers were tired and fed-up. When you’re scared like that, the fear kicks in and you start thinking about survival. My father still tells the story of how he once walked into my classroom and he didn’t recognize me for a moment because, he said, “all the light had been sucked out.”
That’s certainly not something I would put my own boys through.
Anyway, the Archdiocese had a scholarship program and so I was able to go to St. Lucy’s, although it was still at great financial sacrifice, a big leap for my family. St. Lucy’s ended in 8th grade and my parents couldn’t afford to send me to the Catholic high school so I went to Essex County Vo-Tech. Then I graduated from Rutgers and am finishing my Master’s at NJ Institute of Technology in information systems.
Laura: Can you tell me about your own children’s education and the choices you’ve made for them?
Jasmine: Sure! I have two boys, 8 years old and five years old. My older boy started off in a daycare and they helped advance him during those two years. We put him in a private school after that but it shut down. After that we homeschooled him, but his dad had purchased a house in West Orange [right outside Newark] and we decided to send him to that district.
So we’re putting him in West Orange and I wanted him tested. He was six years old and tested at a 2nd grade level. Now here comes the problem: I go with him to his second grade classroom the first day to meet the teacher. Do you know how many kids are in that class? Twenty-two! With one teacher! I said to the teacher, “I don’t see how this is effective for anyone.” She said, “this is the way it is.” Then a note comes home saying no parents are allowed in the classroom. On his birthday I had to leave the cupcakes in the main office!
Here’s another thing. Of those 22 students there are three African-American boys, including my own. I find out that they are sending these three boys to the guidance counselor for “therapy.” No one else. Just those three boys. They didn’t even tell me! I found out from my son. Immediately I head off to the Board office to find out what’s going on. Indeed, there’s a guidance counselor conducting her sessions with my son without my permission.
I told the school, “my son will not be here next year.”
Laura: What else can you tell me about your son’s first years in school?
Jasmine: The structure is that you get lots of books: math, reading, science, history, a homework book. It’s a perceptual trick, a psych-out for the parents. You think your kids are being educated because they have lots of books. Meanwhile I’m paying for tutors and academic support.
The first year my son attended North Star [part of the Uncommon Schools network] was the first year I didn’t have to pay for tutoring. And when there are 22 kids in a classroom there are two teachers, not one.
Laura: How did you get him into North Star? Why did you choose that school?
Jasmine: I had heard of North Star because as a teenager I met some kids from there through a youth council. I thought those kids were amazing. Meanwhile we had moved back to Newark — I felt we had a better chance because I knew the system — and I went ahead and entered my son in the lottery. He got picked the first time! Moving back to Newark was the best decision I ever made.
Laura: What was the transition like for him from West Orange schools to North Star?
Jasmine: I thought it was going to be horrible: uniforms, rules, homework seven days a week. As soon as he made it in I went to the school and said, “we’re going to have to work together because he is very disorganized.” That’s what they had told me in West Orange. But when I went to my first parent-teacher conference at North Star the teacher told me, “he doesn’t have any organizational problems.” In fact, he was Student of the Month! We were blown away. It was like we were meant to be there. There are 22 kids in the classroom, just like West Orange, but instead of one teacher there is two.
And those teachers are just so supportive. I can text them anything — say, I’m working with my son on some new mental math exercises and I want to know if they see any difference in the classroom — and they’ll text me right back. Or sometimes they’ll call me or text me to say they had to take away a star because he misbehaved. That’s how it should be: parents are members of the team. If my boy is having a bad day I’ll bring him to Dean Benson and he’ll talk him down.
Laura: What’s the schoolwork like?
Jasmine: They’re in 4th grade, but they’re touching 6th grade-level math. There’s a lot of emphasis on writing comprehensive analyses. He has to have a theory, a conclusion, evidence. It’s all critical thinking, which was absent from West Orange, where it was all memorize, memorize, memorize.
I’ll tell you this: he brings that critical thinking home! I can’t get anything past him! That’s my only complaint.
Laura: And you have a five year-old there now in kindergarten, right?
Jasmine: Yes. He went to Head Start, which is exploration through play. North Star is not exploration through play. He’s only five and he can read! You remember what happened with the cupcakes in West Orange where they wouldn’t even let me into the classroom on my boy’s birthday? At North Star I texted the teacher and asked if I could come in to see the reading program. She welcomed me in — what a contrast.
Laura: I’ve heard some people say that charter schools are too rigid. Do you find that to be the case with your sons?
Jasmine: I find they need the structure. Not that we don’t have structure at home, but I tend to let them loose there. I appreciate the structure. I incorporate some of it at home, some of the positive reinforcement.
I’ve always been very observant about my children’s environment. My first concern with schooling was safety. Then, once that’s secured, it’s about what more they can do academically. I just love that at North Star they don’t set boundaries for the children. We say “it’s too rigorous” but the flip side of that is they can go somewhere where there’s no cap on what they can achieve. With the rigor comes endless possibilities. I never had that. But now I can give it to my kids. It’s one of the best gifts they’ll ever get from me. God bless that we have this.
Laura: What do you think of Governor Murphy talking about taking a “pause” on charter expansion so they can study the law?
Jasmine: I say this: don’t fix what’s not broken. Let’s focus on what’s not working. Charters are working! I would also say, from those who argue that charters are draining funds from the district, that NPS is not a corporation. It’s not an employment agency. It is a service. And it has to serve who it’s intended to serve, and that’s educating kids.
Laura: Is there anything else you’d like NJLB readers to know?
Jasmine: Just that I brought many Essex County parents together in Newark on Election Day for an event called “Charter Families Rock the Boat.” We celebrated voting and our right to make choices!