Opinion

First-Person: One Newark Mother Explains How School Choice Saved Her Kids — and Why She’s Sharing Their Story With NJ Lawmakers

By Rasheedah Dollar | December 13, 2015

Newark, New Jersey
Monday, parents from across New Jersey will be converging on the state capitol in Trenton. Our mission: To support our state legislators, regarding the future of our education system.
We are not setting out to protest or to lay blame, but simply to share our personal stories. While parents will be traveling from around the state, a number of us, like me, were born and raised in Newark and have seen the ups and downs of the Newark district schools firsthand.  
As children of Newark, we witnessed district classrooms physically deteriorate around us and endured teachers who were more interested in reaching the end of the day than reaching — or inspiring — any of us. As students, we often lacked opportunity, and lost hope, in the city’s district school system.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the words — hope and opportunity — for a kid growing up in Newark. These are two words that are very personal. If you have not grown up under the same circumstances it may be hard to imagine how these two words can have different meanings depending on where you come from.  
To give you a better sense, especially during this time of year, some children are able to associate hope and opportunity with gifts they are expecting to receive from Santa. But in Newark, it is not uncommon for a child during the Holidays to wish for something as simple as a school that is safe — a school where they are not being bullied, a school where teachers are dedicated to their well being.   
In Trenton Monday, I’m joining other parents in the hopes that we can talk about this distinction directly with those making the state’s education decisions.
Now that I am a parent, it is so hard to watch my own children addresses the exact same educational challenges I faced years ago. Unfortunately, very little has changed when in comes to the district education system in Newark and there is very little a parent can do about it. I remain committed to my city, the City of Newark, but the desire for greater hope and opportunity seems to be going unheard.
I am one of the lucky ones in Newark. I found hope and opportunity for my family eight years ago. I did it while folding laundry.
This may sound overly dramatic — but with clothes piled high on a Laundromat dryer, my eyes caught a poster that advertised Newark’s public charter schools and I learned that the city provided families, like mine, with meaningful choices when it comes public education. That day was the beginning of a much-needed generational shift for my family.
At that time I had a 13 year-old daughter in the Newark district schools who was having the same struggles I had to contend with years ago, and four much younger children all about to enter school as well. Charter schools were still somewhat new to Newark at the time and though I had heard of them, that poster inspired me to reach out and investigate. I learned that all charters in Newark are public schools, free of charge and available to everyone.  
Even to this day, it is amazing to me to think as a single mom with five kids in Newark, this is how positive change can happen — by looking at a poster in a Laundromat at the right moment. I feel truly blessed.
Like the many elected politicians in Newark who choose to send their children to private schools or schools outside of the City, Newark’s charters provide people like me with needed choice. They have become a way to empower all Newark parents – while also keeping our children part of the public education system. Most of all, they ensure that children, like mine, do not witness the same things I did.
Since enrolling my children in a charter school my family has witnessed nothing short of a miracle. They determined and addressed specific special needs that had previously held my children back. The teachers have boosted the confidence of each of my kids. I receive phone call reports keeping me up to date on their progress each week. Most of all, from the day my children entered, each were instilled the importance of going to college.
The school has never given up on my children, no matter the challenge.
So why does my personal story matter and why should the countless stories being told today in Trenton matter? Because in our stories lawmakers should see a path to restoring hope and opportunity in Newark and Camden, Trenton and Jersey City, and other cities throughout New Jersey.
The people walking the halls on Monday in the New Jersey State Capital will not be high-paid lobbyists, they will be people like me — a Newark mother trying to make ends meet. I am someone who loves the city I grew up in and my only motivation is to ensure that my children – and other children – have better opportunities than I had.  
Elected leaders will more hear stories like mine — and with these stories we hope to enlighten, inspire and educate. Every person in Trenton Monday is a symbol of what choice can bring to a family. And together, we must share hope and opportunity with more families in New Jersey.
Submit a Letter to the Editor