NEWARK, NJ - Newark school leader Maria Pilar Paradiso was honored with a Robert F. Kennedy Urban Education Award for her courage and improving the culture at Link Community Charter School as its school leader.

She received the award at the Schools That Can 14th Annual Forum luncheon last month. The award, from the Schools That Can (STC) in partnership with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, was presented by Kennedy’s granddaughter, Cara Kennedy Cuomo.

The 2019 awards honored a school leader, teacher, and student who have demonstrated moral courage and commitment to bettering their communities.

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In addition to the RFK Awards, Schools That Can presented the Leaders That Can Awards, to honor community and service-oriented local businesses and leaders. Chancellor Nancy Cantor of Rutgers University-Newark was honored for her leadership in education. Prudential Financial was honored for their investment in community initiatives to help shrink the opportunity and skills gap.

Prior to working in education, Paradiso worked with former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley and practiced law. Though there were different social inequities she was operating within, she didn’t feel like she was making a long-term impact toward systemic change that she desired.

“I was always pulled to the social justice arena, so I was really lucky that I joined Link Community School in August of 2012,” Paradiso said. “I felt like when I arrived I had an opportunity to take all that experience and skill set that I had developed and put it to work in a way that [had] a tangible impact.”

She was nominated for the award by Link staff for her commitment to equity, justice and instilling those values in others and her role converting Link from an independent private school to a public charter school.

Paradiso arrived at Link 2002 and was appointed head of school in 2010. She expanded the school to reach more students at an earlier age and help ensure that students continued to be admitted to local competitive magnet, private, and boarding schools.

The school offers a four-week summer academy for incoming students and students who desire additional academic programs to keep developing their skills. Project-based learning focused on real world issues is maximized to help students develop skills and confidence they can tap into in the future, said Paradiso.

What’s unique about the award distinction, Schools That Can Executive Director Erin Sweeney explained, is that the awards are not narrowly focused on academic merit or standardized state test metrics.

“It’s about what teacher or school leader or student teacher is going above and beyond and demonstrating what it means to be socially active and involved, community-centered person,” said Sweeney.

Paradiso said she is grateful for the honor.

“I get so much more out of it than I feel I give,” she explains. “Education and school leadership is so challenging day to day, but when you step back you realize it’s an extraordinary role to serve.”