NEWARK, NJ -- A book of poetry by Newark teens called “Chasing Sunsets On Brick Seas.” A copy of Ta Nehisi Coates’ essay collection, “We Were Eight Years in Power.” Photos of her 7-year-old Jharid. Student-made artwork along the windowsill. Giant yellow posters she scrawls To-Do’s on (because regular sized Post-It’s just don’t cut it.) 

All items that make up the office of Kaleena Berryman, the executive director of the Abbott Leadership Institute (ALI), on the Rutgers University campus in Newark. 

It would be easy to glean from her office some of the things that have shaped her as an education advocate. 

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In September, the school entered its second year since regaining control of its school district from the state. Berryman said with Superintendent Roger Leon at the helm (he took office in July 2018), the infrastructure of organizations like ALI, and the support of Mayor Ras Baraka, the stars have aligned for much-needed change in the Brick City.

She believes the key to that change is the relationship between parents and students. 

“One of the ideas that I presented to the Joint Committee on the Public Schools at a recent hearing in Trenton is that we should create, at the state level, a task force to develop parent engagement standards for the state,” Berryman told TAPinto Newark. 

At the Oct. 8 hearing, Berryman, along with other speakers, addressed the topic of “Parental Involvement Informing Teaching and Learning.”

“Superintendent Leon is mandating that every single school have a functioning parent organization and that is something that was important to us,” Berryman said. “But we have not set a standard around parent participation in schools and created reporting requirements for data that we collect.”

Berryman believes ALI is an immeasurable resource in enacting actionable change on this front.

In addition to helping increase civic engagement among parents, youth and community stakeholders, in 2006 ALI extended its mission to include the development of media skills in young people through its Youth Media Symposium (YMS) summer and after school program. 

The program includes the development of media skills in filmmaking, photography, journalism, and social media.

Wearing Many Hats

Berryman draws inspiration for her advocacy from her mentor Junius Williams, who has been at the forefront of the civil rights and human rights movement for decades and founded ALI in 2002.

Berryman, who was born and raised in Newark, has worked with ALI for 13 years and served as the executive director for a year. She also serves as the advocacy coach for the institute’s YMS.

In 2013, Berryman co-founded Newark Circle of Sisters - an organization that provides service scholarships to Newark women. It currently has 75 members. 

It is easy to say Berryman wears many hats. But when asked where her focus was currently, she said visiting local institutions and organizations like Head Start's Office of Early Childhood and the Essex County Council for Young Children, to increase parent participation.

“The biggest hurdle [we’re facing] is we need more parents and families engaged in these processes so they can more effectively advocate for the schools our community needs - schools that cultivate the talent in our children that we know is there but is too often overlooked.”

A Mother Leading The Charge 

Berryman is no stranger to advocating as a parent. 

She co-authored a letter to A. Harry Moore School following the controversial announcement New Jersey City University (NJCU) would be closing the school due to a need of extensive repairs. The school educates special needs students like Berryman’s son, Jharid.

NJCU later rescinded the announcement, saying it would instead relocate the students while establishing a plan to reopen the school.

Berryman said the experience of becoming a mother served as a turning point for her.

In April 2012, her son was born premature. 

“When my son was born, he was born fighting to live and there was really no grace period for me. Immediately, I had to employ my advocacy skills,” Berryman said.

Jharid, who has cerebral palsy and autism, became a beacon for her.

“In my short period of being a mom, I have experienced so much heartache and triumph. I’m still fighting for my son,” she added. “It has helped me to be able to have an open dialogue with parents and understand them at a deeper level. No parent who's advocating for their child wants to be adversarial but when the system doesn’t listen, you have to be.”

Like all other facets of Berryman’s life, she put her experience with her son’s developmental disorder in a positive light. She launched her blog Praying4MyPreemie in 2012, where she offers parents of premature babies the chance to schedule a call and talk about their journey.

Her book, “Stronger Than We Thought: Poetry for the Preemie Mom’s Journey,” is celebrating its fifth anniversary this November. 

And she’s not done. 

Berryman said she has been working on a collection that focuses on helping parents overcome the neonatal intensive care unit - which specializes in the care of ill or premature newborn infants. The details of the release are TBD.

Chiming in on Charters

Despite charter schools predominantly serving as a divisive subject on a national level, Newark appears to feel differently. 

Registered voters were polled in early September as to whether they agreed with the statement that “public charter schools are an important part of the public school landscape in Newark.” 

The survey was conducted by the firm Change Research and commissioned by the New Jersey Children’s Foundation, a non-profit based in Newark that supports charter schools.

Of the 516 respondents, 63 percent said they agreed with the statement. 

Berryman would not be surprised by such a sentiment, as she feels that charter schools are like any other.

“My thoughts on charter schools are the same as my thoughts on every school. I'm teaching our families how they can advocate for the changes necessary to meet the growing needs of students and families, and charters are a part of that.” 

She noted, “There's some things that they do very well some things that they can do better. Regardless, they educate a whole lot of children and they’re part of the city.”