WHITE: For Vanessa, And All Our Vanessas To Come

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When bureaucratic shenanigans and red tape play Russian roulette with children’s lives, we all suffer. I was reminded of this by a recent LinkedIn inbox message I received. It came from Vanessa Iwuoha, a high school student who was a part of the founding first grade class at the charter school I created and opened over a decade ago in Newark, New Jersey. Now in the 12th grade, Vanessa wanted to reconnect with me and here, in part, is what she wrote:

 Back then I didn’t really understand but I really appreciated all you did with Newark Legacy and it definitely played a big role in the rest of my education!

She then went on to tell me that she’d been accepted to her dream school — Stanford University — and was awaiting word of acceptance from some of the most elite tertiary institutions in the country, including Princeton, Dartmouth, Harvard and my own beloved alma mater— America’s #1 HBCU, Spelman College. I felt a lump in my throat as I reread her message, humbled to know that I played a part in the educational journey of a powerhouse from Newark’s south ward. 

When I opened Newark Legacy Charter School in September 2010, then-Newark mayor Cory Booker cut the ribbon at our school right before making a beeline directly to the airport to fly to the Oprah Winfrey Show to meet with Mike Zuckerberg and cement an investment in the city’s education system.  I knew nothing of that meeting that morning when he graced the auditorium of our school, but what I knew for sure was that my goal was to create an army of Vanessas — children equipped with the foundation necessary to choose their own adventure in this world. 

Those days feel like a lifetime ago—Newark Legacy is now merged with another public school to form Great Oaks Legacy Charter School, and several other great public schools have now opened up in the city. However, the goals I harbored then are alive and well in me, as well as in many educators in Newark today. Sadly, the welfare of charter school students and families doesn’t always appear to be of value, although many families have children in both traditional public schools and charter public schools and could care less about these designations as long as their students’ needs are being met. 

When I stood in front of supermarket entrances and in laundromats handing out flyers to any parent who would take one, I promised a college-preparatory education and invited parents to come to an information session to learn more. They came, eventually filling every single one of the school’s 120 inaugural kindergarten and first-grade seats and even establishing a waiting list for more would-be takers. I could certainly allow my ego to convince me that this happened because of my stellar resume and compelling presence, but who would I be kidding? I had a great track record as a teacher but someone like me, with no school leadership experience at the time, would have had a hard time convincing more than a handful of discerning parents to entrust their most prized possessions to a new school’s care, were it not for the fact that those families were living in an environment where suitable schooling options were scant. 

It’s 2022 now and in Newark the good news is that there are more K-12 schools that work for our kids and they are hiding in plain sight. The bad news however is that there still aren’t enough of them and many of these schools are political footballs, subject to the whims of a ruling class that will never have to grapple with the challenges that urban, under-resourced families face when trying to find a safe, supportive, academically-successful school for their children. It’s time for the folks who call the shots to make things easier for parents to place their children in schools where they can thrive. 

Now here’s a spoiler alert about the young woman who deserves the spotlight —Vanessa. She made her decision, and Harvard University it is. They will have the privilege of providing her with a college education. I make no claim to gifting Vanessa her intellectual prowess or her supportive family, and our school had several missteps for sure, but with a longer school day and year; a research-based early reading approach; a culturally responsive oral literacy program; joyful math competitions; and hype rallies for first graders who got their very own Newark city library cards, I’d like to think that that learning with us in her earliest years  provided fertile ground for Vanessa to succeed. The best part is, Vanessa agrees.

 

 

 

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