NEWARK, NJ - Middle school was tough for Ryan Hill. Sheepish, dorky, with funny-looking glasses, he was never invited to hang out with the cool kids or to weekend parties, so he retreated to books.
His seventh-grade teacher, Mr. Wilhelm, did everything he could to make reading fun and help Hill realize that it is cool to be a reader.
“In Mr. Wilhelm’s class, I got to see a higher version of myself than the shy kid standing on the sidelines of the dance floor. I could be a proud reader, I could be defined by the strengths I held, not by my shyness," Hill said to a room full of teachers, students, parents and supporters at New Jersey Performing Arts Center on Wednesday night.
That bookish, shy, dorky kid grew up to become a principal and in 2002 helped create TEAM Academy, a charter elementary school in Newark’s South Ward. Hill is CEO of KIPP New Jersey, which now operates 11 schools, serving over 5,000 students across Newark and Camden and hopes to serve 10,000 students over the next few years.
“That is the impact of a great teacher,” said Hill.
It's been 17 years since KIPP New Jersey opened TEAM Academy, its flagship middle school, and is now hosting its 12th annual “Be The Change” fundraising event. Tamron Hall, an award-winning TV host and journalist, joined hundreds of KIPP staff and families to discuss education and the importance of parent-teacher partnership with TEAM Academy school leader Veronica Avery.
Hall, who received an Emmy nomination for her Education Nation: Teacher Town Hall segment in 2011, fondly recalled the importance of the teachers in her life. She was in a magnet program high school for broadcast journalism in high school and was forewarned by her peers to not take Ernestine Rose as a teacher. To her chagrin, Miss Rose was on her class roster.
Over 30 years later, she talks to Miss Rose to this day.
“Miss Rose changed my life. She broadened my horizon in a way that complemented what my parents were doing for me as a human being. As a student, she took me to the next level. So I never shrugged the importance of teacher,” Hall said on stage.
Hall's mother was a school teacher and Hall talked nostalgically about her during the Teacher Town Hall segments. Hall said she believes the show was critical to sharing the stories of those on the frontlines of education serving children. The show was also an outlet for her to dispell some of the stereotypes of urban youth and their parents.
"As a parent, you want to be the superhero in your child’s life. But every superhero needs a great sidekick. I think the relationship [between parents and teachers] is critical. There’s a lot of misunderstanding especially when it comes to urban moms and dads. There’s a stereotype that you don’t care or you’re not there because you’re not involved," Hall said.
"It’s easy to stereotype a single mom and assume things. Then you have parents whose English is not their first language so they have a hard time showing up. Or parents who can’t read and they have a hard time helping with homework, if you get the wrong teacher who judges, it’s a conflict. Breaking down some misunderstanding and having that openness with parents is critical. If I didn’t have that complementary relationship with Ms. Rose and my mom, I wouldn’t be here," Hall said.
The "Be The Change" fundraising event raised $850,000 towards classrooms for Newark Lab High School -- its second high school that will open on Norfolk Street, where Newark Collegiate Academy was located before moving to a newly constructed facility on Littleton Avenue. Donations will also be used to help cover costs for supplies, summer enrichment programs, learning and technology programs, and college book stipends and emergency funding for KIPP alumni college students.
“We all want what’s best for our children, it is our job to meet them where they are and make sure they reach their maximum potential," said Avery, who was a founding teacher at the Seek Academy elementary school in 2013.
"[Students] go home with every night and have dinner [with their parents] but we are here every day putting in the work. Getting on the same page is part of what makes the magic happen.”
Editor's note: Kei-Sygh Thomas is a 2013 graduate of KIPP: NJ.