NEA’s Back to School Tour Highlights Opportunity Gap in Public Education

If you ask the students at Pyne Poynt Middle School in Camden, New Jersey what they would like to have at their school, the answers are simple.

“An art teacher.”

“Clubs to participate in.”

“Some color on our walls.”

That’s what NEA President Lily Ekselsen García found out during the New Jersey leg of NEA’s 2014 Back to School Tour. And during a meeting with Camden parents and community members, Eskelsen García asked the same question. All they want is for their kids to have the same opportunities that kids in wealthier parts of the state have.

“We’re not getting the resources our children deserve in public schools,” said Byheijja Sabree, a frustrated Camden parent.

NEA President Lily Eskelsen García visits students at Pyne Poynte Middle School in Camden New Jersey on September 12, 2014

Pyne Poynt is located in high-poverty, high-crime Camden, one of the poorest cities in the United States with a per capita income of around $13,000. Camden is also home to controversial corporate reform efforts that are closing public schools, laying off teachers and taking the voice away from educators and the community. The district has a state-appointed superintendent, and instead of an elected school board it has an advisory board appointed “Competition sounds good until you get to education,” said New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) President Wendell Steinhauer during a press conference at Pyne Poynt during the tour. “Then the word should be collaboration.”

While the climate in Camden makes it difficult for students to learn, there are successes to celebrate at Pyne Poynt because of the school’s dedicated educators.

“We have such a diverse population,” said Ivonne D’Amato-Suarez, an ESL teacher at the school. “We offer a great bilingual program to support students transition into English speaking classrooms.”

The school is also one of NJEA’s Priority Schools, a program designed to bring educators, community members and other stakeholders together to address the challenges faced At Pyne Poynt that support has included implementation of Blessings in a Backpack, a program that sends a backpack of food home with 50 students every Friday and mentorship through ASK US (United Scholars), where students on the cusp of passing state assessments receive extra help.

“It helps me like school better,” said Keiri, an 8th grader in the program. “We share ideas with each other, and I get to study with my friends.”

Fifty miles to the north in Plainsboro, New Jersey is West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North, a school that shows what can be achieved when students are given resources to excel, and the second school Eskelsen García visited on the tour.

NEA President Lily Eskelsen García tours West Windsor-Plainsboro North High School with NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer.

The school offers state-of-the-art technology, teams in 30 sports, various student publications, acclaimed performing groups in vocal and instrumental music and over 40 clubs devoted to specialized interests. Diversity is also celebrated at West Windsor-Plainsboro, where students speak 33 languages.

As Jenna Cavadas, a guidance counselor at the school explained, “My favorite part of working here is the collaboration amongst staff to make sure students get a well rounded education that not only includes academics, but extracurriculars like music sports and arts that enables them to succeed beyond high school.”

The academic and cultural resources have also attracted a highly trained instructional staff, with approximately 62 percent of teachers holding advanced degrees. Many faculty members serve as educational consultants or teach part-time at local colleges or universities.

“I wanted to go to a school that has a lot of challenges, and I wanted to go to a school that has a lot of resources. And I want to talk about how we close that gap.” Eskelsen García explained at an afterschool meeting with educators at West Windsor-Plainsboro during the tour.

The answer? Educating the whole child. “You put the kid together first, and the world will follow,” said Eskelsen García.

Not the answer? Toxic testing.

Students, parents and educators in both communities expressed frustration with standardized testing and current education policies that are not student-centered. In Camden, a parent shared how her son was forced to take a timed computerized test despite the school not having the technology resources to prepare him for the transition from paper. In Plainsboro, one student shared how testing pressure led to a struggle with depression and anxiety.

Also in common at both Pyne Poynt and West Windsor-Plainsboro is mutual respect between the staff and students and the fact that great teaching can be found no matter what zip code you’re in.

“I asked staff and students at each school the same question, ‘Complete this sentence: my students are… or my teachers are…’” said Eskelsen García. “If you closed your eyes, you wouldn’t be able to tell which school they came from. They all had the same answer. Teachers are heroes and inspiring. And so are the students.”

Read more about NEA’s 2014 Back to School tour at nea.org/backtoschooltour.