A Newark school is leading the way as an example of triumph over adversity and the strides that can be made when a community of educators comes together to ensure that students succeed, both inside and outside the classroom.
Newark Educators Community Charter School (NECCS), in its commitment to a holistic approach to education, began its partnership several years ago with Main Street Counseling--a not-for-profit agency that provides on-site counseling services to students--in the hopes of ensuring the emotional needs of students were met alongside their academic needs.
NECCS, located in the city's East Ward and serving 300 students in grades pre-k-4, initiated the partnership in 2012, when principal Dina Velez identified an immediate need for intervention.
“The first thing I wanted to know was how we were responding to the needs of kids,” Velez said. “Newark is very trauma-sensitive environment and the kids’ behavior indicated there was a need for counseling services. I called MSC up and said, ‘we need your help."
Velez said when she first began her tenure at NECCS in 2012, it was not uncommon to see students displaying violent and unruly behavior. Calls for emergency first aid happened on a number of occasions as well, said Velez.
“There was just very violent behavior,” Velez said, noting that many of the students came from challenging home situations. “That’s an indicator that the kids are saying, ‘help.’”
During her first year, Velez said, there were more than 400 incidents, and the need to address the emotional and social needs of students became her first priority.
“It was about making children safe as a new administrator,” she said. “It was about taking care of their needs first and making them secure.”
Were the kids hungry? Were they clean? These were the most pressing questions to be asked, according to Velez.
“We had to do this before doing 'two plus two equals four',” she said. “Staff And kids were getting hurt. We needed global support all the way around. The philosophy of our school is taking care of the whole child."
A team of eight licensed psychologists began working immediately with several dozen students at the school, with sessions held each day of the week.
Specific goals were set by the counselors and students, such as expressing anger verbally instead of physically. Five years later, the incidents have decreased by 75 percent.
Steve Margeotes, founder and executive director of MSC, said the partnership with NECCS has seen consistent and positive results.
“The children have experienced a lot, and for us to in there and interpret and to be a consistent presence has worked wonders,” he said. “To come in and work with this anger and to channel it in a different way is a win-win. You see the behavioral changes in kids and see them gravitate towards therapy.”
Margeotes said MSC, which he started in 1980 and is located in West Orange, is currently working with approximately 60 kids each week at the school, with six counselors coming in daily to meet with the students.
“For them to know we’re there for them every week has been a great resource,” he said. “It takes a committed staff and committed teachers to do this. Every day we have a presence there. What we do there is probably a model of what we can do in other places.”
In addition, the partnership comes at no cost to the school, with funding provided for services through grant applications to private foundations in Newark.
Michele Mason, executive director of the Newark Charter School Fund, noted the importance of addressing students’ emotional needs.
“Through its partnership with Main Street Counseling, NECCS is finding creative ways to meet not only the academic but also the social-emotional needs of students,” Mason said. “This a model that works and should be an inspiration to all educators. When our children are happy and healthy, their potential is unleashed.”
Velez said that students are now proactive, often acknowledging their own emotional needs and seeking out counseling sessions for themselves.
“For a child to recognize their emotions, that’s amazing,” Velez said. “If you do this at the onset, you are saving money. We all know what trauma does. Let’s be proactive and not reactive. Everyone needs to know this is not a quick fix. This is not a high. Newark has a lot of transients. I tell families, “Don’t leave, you’ll see improvement in a year or two. Just stay, you’ll see.’’
Those who stay are reaping the rewards of NECCS's holistic approach to their students, with the school boasting a variety of programs and initiatives, such as an outdoor garden to educate students about health, wellness and sustainability, a Math Olympiad, field trips throughout the city, Coffee with the Principal, among many others.
The academic achievements of students, along with their emotional and social successes, is a source of pride for the school, Velez said.
Margeotes lauded NECCS for the successful collaboration.
“We love it there, our staff loves it there,” he said. “We will be there as long as they want us there. It's a great partnership--they have the children, we have the expertise. I just see this program growing."
Velez noted the need for a shift in focus, with the emotional and social well-being of students a priority for educators.
"We want kids to know they can make a difference in their communities today," she said. "This is about healing and empowerment through community. If you can heal the community in a school, it will lend itself to the bigger picture."