NEWARK, NJ - More than half of all public school students in the United States will be children of color by 2020. Yet, culturally irrelevant teaching often deprives students the opportunity to see themselves reflected in their learning.

Schools That Can, a national organization that promotes real-world learning to prepare students to successfully transition from classroom to career, hosted its 14th Annual National Forum focused on culturally relevant, real-world learning.

Approximately 200 school leaders, teachers, and community partners from their network convened at Rutgers Newark’s Paul Robeson Center to share best practices, resources, and celebrate each other.

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Education, as it operates now, transmits the culture of whom it was created to serve, white people. Specifically, English language speaking Christians said BRICK Education Network founder and CEO, Dominique Lee, who delivered the keynote address. Schools and educators are playing catchup to reflect the cultural backgrounds of their students. 

Children and their identities should be celebrated, he said, centered in learning for deeper knowledge, and a source of power students would use to lead as change agents in their communities.

“It is not enough to teach students two plus two. It is not enough to equip them with repeatable facts in their heads that will not let them unlock their limitless potential,” Lee said. “We must tap into who they are. They must learn from themselves. They must see themselves. We must see them.”

Lee, a Teach For America alumnus, recruited six other alumni and founded Building Responsible Intelligent Creative Kids (BRICK) in 2009. The school management nonprofit adopts low-performing schools and infuses best practices from the traditional and charter school sectors to address external factors that impede on students’ ability to achieve academic excellence.

The network started with BRICK Avon Academy in 2011. Avon Avenue School, once the worst performing school in Newark, soared to the top of the district during the 2016-2017 school year. The network currently manages BRICK Peshine and Achieve Community Charter School.

“In most cases, we are visitors to our schools’ communities. If we don’t break that mental model, it becomes problematic. How do we collaborate with the community to continue to improve the community?” said Ronald Chaluisán, executive director of Newark Trust for Education, during his introduction of Lee.

“It's about working with the community to look at the strengths, pulling them together, and growing the community together at a high bar,” Chaluisán said, citing how Lee has been leading by example.

The South Ward Children’s Alliance addresses external barriers that impede children's' academic success of children through a cradle-to-career, two-generational approach. The alliance was one of the few minority-led organizations to receive a competitive $30 million Promise Neighborhood grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 2017.

Newark’s South Ward is home to the city’s most distressed neighborhoods according to the alliance's website. The area is predominantly Black with high concentrations of poverty which the organization believes makes children more vulnerable to adverse childhood experiences that impede students' ability to thrive inside and outside of school.

The $30 million grant will allow the alliance and its 24 partners to offer wrap-around services in housing, education, health, and economic supports for families Lee explained. About 80% of the grant directly funds programming with the remaining used for evaluation and research.

“As a school, you can not teach children in isolation,” said Erin Sweeney, executive director of Schools That Can Newark. “We often look at things in isolation and we don’t put in place a mechanism for the schools to be able to appropriately and adequately address issues in a child’s life that would be getting in the way of their education.”

Community Asset Preservation Corporation (CAPC) plans to develop 100 units of affordable housing in the next five years, community grief counseling sessions will be available through Imagine Center for Coping with Loss, and Newark Community Street Team provides mentorship and safe passageways with vigilant adults for commuting students -- a slither of services Lee says the Alliance will amplify to the community. The organization also plans to bring a federally qualified healthcare center, that provides comprehensive care for low-income families, to Clinton Hill.

Despite the number of resources in New Jersey, Lee is slightly nervous about how this collaboration will sustain beyond federally funded grants. He believes that organizations and schools working together will ultimately shift the narrative of what is possible for educating students in the South Ward.

“It’s not just a school or just a health center, but a bundle of wraparound services,” said Lee. “Our responsibility is to show the legislature that it is cheaper, better this way than waiting for a kid who doesn’t graduate and goes into a system that is going to cost even more.”