I recently had the honor of standing next to Acting Camden Superintendent Katrina McCombs at my son’s school to celebrate academic milestones that thousands of students in Camden are making. For three years in a row, Camden student achievement has increased.
For me, this celebration is very personal.
A few years back my son was bullied at school. He has Tourette’s syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by multiple motor tics and at least one vocal tic.
The more anxious he got about not being understood, the more his symptoms would come out—verbal outbursts and episodes of uncontrollably flapping arms and throwing himself back. That made students bully him more, and teachers didn’t seem to know what to do to help. It was a vicious cycle, with my son stuck in the middle with no way out.
Then in 2017, I took a chance. It was a chance made possible by the changes that Mrs. McCombs, herself a product of Camden public schools, is now overseeing in Camden. In that year, I put my child in a new public school called Uncommon Schools Camden Prep. Camden Prep is a Renaissance school, a public school that collaborates with the Camden City district system, but is not run by it.
Camden Prep looked at KingSebastian in a completely different light. He was not an oddity to avoid or to figure out. He was a loving little boy who needed understanding and belief in his genius. At Camden Prep, he has received awards for homework super star, scholar of the month and perfect attendance every month.
KingSebastian now loves coming to school and doesn’t want to miss a day. He finally feels like he belongs. For the first time in a long time, he is confident because he feels safe and is getting the support he deserves.
With Ms. McCombs a few feet away, last week I told an audience in Camden what KingSebastian told me a few weeks after starting at Camden Prep: “Mom, they see me for me, not my Tourette syndrome.”
I teared up as I told this story to the Superintendent and a gymnasium full of other supporters. Any mother knows what it means to know that your child is understood and loved for exactly who they are. He’s not just performing well, he is thriving. I recently learned from his principal that he had one of the highest scores in his class on the state PARCC exam.
His peers are showing the nation what a great school can do, too. Only four years ago, before Camden Prep took over a local elementary school, 3 percent of the students passed the state math test. This year, 52 percent at Camden Prep passed the state math exam, including my son. That’s higher than the state average in New Jersey of 49 percent, considered one of the top states in the nation academically.
I’m grateful to be part of this new movement in Camden that is celebrating KingSebastian and the thousands of other children across the city who are growing into our city’s future leaders.
LaVonia Abavana is a parent of Uncommon Schools Camden Prep student KingSebastian.
This op-ed originally appeared in the Courier-Post.