NJ.com: Inner-city Black students need more than academics to succeed | Opinion
April 12, 2022
Weequahic High School takes the empowerment of its students to heart. Recently, the staff dedicated a day to center their female students by curating talks and workshops that spoke directly to their needs.
With a school population that is predominantly Black, educators at Weequahic focus their efforts beyond prescribed academics and take every opportunity to inspire its students.
They understand that Black students in New Jersey’s inner-city schools start their educations with a deficit. It’s no secret that public schools in the state are segregated due to redlining practices that divided neighborhoods across color lines. This phenomenon created a disparity in the money available to schools, which impacted educational outcomes.
However, there is an awareness at Weequahic that Black students need more than core academic classes to catch up to their non-Black peers; they need to see themselves reflected in positive role models.
“We just wanted someone who looks like them,” said Keya Sanders, a health and physical education instructor at the school who helped to organize the event. “Someone that they wouldn’t be intimidated by, that they can sit down and have real conversations with.”
When the school calls, she says she answers because she believes in the work they do with their students and the surrounding community. Her program is called “Mind Over Matter,” which encourages youth not to concentrate on their circumstances. “We try to let them know that whatever it is that you put your mind to that is what matters and you focus on you."
Dr. Sharnee Brown is the chief education officer for Newark in the mayor’s office. She represents the office of comprehensive community education. Brown gave the keynote address at the beginning of the program, where she told the audience that they didn’t need to live up to the standard tropes - of bearing the world on their shoulders - around female blackness. “This is a wonderful opportunity to connect with our young women. And my message was to encourage women to be open to respect, tenderness, and help.”
Stephanie White Strout is a social worker at Weequahic and was part of the organizing committee for the Women’s Conference. She noted they had women from all walks of life hosting workshops, covering topics from dating to COVID to professional development. Strout said, “there are many unmet needs that our young people have. And one of those things can be barriers to transportation and trauma. It can also be the digital divide. We want to make sure that we bought community to the students and students to the community.”
Strout wants to build on this years’ event and hopes to incorporate parents next year. She also wants to enhance their speaker’s bureau.
Kimani Fontaine is a student at Chancellor Avenue School next door to Weequahic. She said they invited eight graders to attend the Women’s Conference. Fontaine has several brothers at home and was happy to be around other girls. She liked Shante’s talk about being resilient and said it stuck with her. She opted to take the yoga workshop that day. “It was very relaxing,” Fontaine said about the yoga class as she came out of tree pose, “it helped my mind reset.”
In their study, “Role Models, Mentors, and Media Influences,” Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip B. Levine concluded that children who participate in formal mentoring programs see improvements in their school performance and are more likely to avoid the criminal justice system.