As a mom to a busy 4 year-old toddler, I have very high expectations of my one and only son. Hopefully, through my guidance, as well as through the support of his ever evolving school system, he will one day grace the classroom of a top university, where a sea of academic options will be at his disposal. Creating a vision board for my son is one thing, but even better than that is my personal investment in his educational journey. That process begins by taking the time out of my busy schedule to help him read and write, while showing him the road map to becoming an earnest leader. I believe that early childhood nurturing, regardless if you are married or single is vital to a child’s learning compass. My goal is for my son to be an asset, and not a liability within his community. It’s easy to blame a child’s inability to thrive and become competitive on a failed school system. But, in all reality, the responsibility starts with a sound and solid foundation, and that begins at home first.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to a Media Brunch in Newark – New Jersey’s largest city. Within the beautiful spaces of the Newark Club, were media peers, waiting to hear Cami Anderson, Newark’s first white female Superintendent discuss her vision for Newark’s broken school system. Before meeting Cami Anderson, I read various opinion pieces regarding her leadership and strategy. As a mother, who has faced her own parenting roadblocks, I requested to meet with her one-on-one. I scraped the data and statistics talk. Our children are more than numbers. I wanted to see where her heart was. I wanted to see if we could connect beyond the political landscape and just be mothers in dialogue about our children’s future. We all have great expectations, but sometimes a mash-up of adversities and challenges can delay even the best laid plans. With the media fiasco aside, I sat down with Newark’s leading academic authority, who I didn’t realize was raised in a multiracial family setting and had a bi-racial 4 year-old.
Meet Cami Anderson, the Educator:
Konnect: Nice to meet you Cami. Let’s get to the heart of the matter. In terms of education and entrepreneurship do you think your current structure or how you are structuring Newark Public Schools will prepare children, once they graduate to be able to run their own businesses? Will Newark children be able to become leaders and not just members within the workforce.
Cami Anderson: I really believe strongly that every kid needs to be able to read, write, think and do math at very high levels. Because if you teach entrepreneurial skills and business skills, but you can’t do that, we just know that in the 21st century, you are going to have limits regarding what you can do. But at the same time, some of the passion you heard from me around teaching students the non-academic skills, like persistence and self-management and recruiting mentors and managing through challenges, so we do have a lot of curriculum, resources, standards and we’ve even partnered with the National Foundation On Teaching Entrepreneurship, because in many ways, what you need to be a successful student, is not different to what you need to actually further your career and start your own business.
I think part of the reason I got in education, I believe, when you look at boardrooms, The White House, higher education, and business, you just see a lack of diversity at the top in terms of gender and race. I think that’s morally wrong, but I think its a big problem for the country, because we are losing out on all of this extraordinary talent. So, some of the reasons I do what I do, is because I want to change that. The strength of our country is diversity, but when it comes to leadership, there are huge gaps.
Konnect: How do you combat the fears of Newark residents, who say you can’t do it because you don’t understand the Newark experience, although you come from a multicultural family?
Cami Anderson: One, I’ve had an interesting journey, as a person, given my family experience. I’m one of 12. I have 9 siblings who were adopted from some pretty tough circumstances and they are multiracial. So I feel like when it comes to some of the challenges I see our students facing, my own family experience has really given me a lot of first hand observations and passions around a lot of the same things our students are facing.
At the same time, I’ve also found that family and students, they want excellence. And if you are willing to be authentic, build relationships and stand up for what is right, a lot of folks just want to be in a great school, and they are happy to partner with whoever.
Konnect: As I listen to you speak, I’m not seeing a white woman in Newark. I’m just seeing an educator.
Cami Anderson: Yes, an activist. Someone who is passionate about equity. I think a lot of families want the best for their kids and they want to believe that the person at the helm, has that as their core value.
Konnect: I’m raising a 4 year-old boy with a busy and overactive imagination. When I look at him, he’s already been in 4 or 5 schools because he is always busy. They like to tie it to ADD. But when I work with him, I see the creative side. So my question is: how do you build programs around children who may not be special needs, but they have difficulties learning in traditional environments?
Cami Anderson: First of all we do know that when it comes to students, African-American and Latino boys are over identified, in terms of students with special needs and also in terms of being disciplined, for the same actions that their white peers are not. So, this is straight up in the research. The first thing is that we need to challenge or own systemic biases and really have frank and tough conversations about the affects of racism. With school in general, you have to be careful not to become too routinized. I grew up in the theater. I believe in giving students a lot of different ways to develop. Some are traditional, because they are going to have to learn to sit in rows to take tests, etc. and then also, non-traditional – the arts and theater. We have to focus on strong academics, but we also have to give kids a lot of opportunity to express themselves. I’m worried about this too because my son is bi-racial.
Konnect: Let’s take a South Ward child that is connected to the most perverse forms of hip hop music. They are heavily infused in gangs, and through music they are taught that school doesn’t even matter. And listening to a Lil Wayne, they realize they can get everything they desire without being in the classroom. They are making millions upon millions and telling our kids that they don’t need school, how do you get those kids – to not be the drop out?
Cami Anderson: I’ve spent most of my career in education, working with young people who failed out of the traditional system. I taught kids who were suspended for a year. In my old job in New York as a Superintendent of alternative high schools, I worked almost exclusively with young people, that really struggled. Many of them were court involved. I actually helped to find a network of charter high schools for court involved youth. So these groups of students are near and dear to my heart. I think you have to look at the 3 R’s – relevance, rigor and relationships. So the first is relevance – they have to feel connected to the people at the school. Schools that do well with young people that are struggling do well because they have adults who believe passionately in young people. They never give up on them, even when they may be challenging authority. That’s the relationship relevance. They have to feel like school is going to get them somewhere. You have to do a lot of things to engage them as leaders. You have to engage them as a community and also use topical issues that they are passionate about. About rigor – people think the way to recapture disconnected youth is to dummy down the curriculum. It’s actually the opposite. Because if they feel bored, or that you don’t respect their intelligence or leadership skills, which many of them have both, then they aren’t going to come back. And they certainly aren’t going to stay if they feel like they can be competent somewhere else. I’ve been blessed to be able to start charter schools and run a whole system. As a teacher, my students have been able get very significant gains. And its because we worked hard in all three of those areas.