Newark student follows in footstep of teacher and together they are champions for kids

ByBarry Carter

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Stacie Alvarez could see her first-grade student was upset after class at KIPP Thrive Academy in Newark on Friday. Seven-year-old Laila had doubts about her ability to solve an inversion math problem until Alvarez changed her thinking.  She kneeled, pulling Laila close, their faces inches apart. Alvarez reassured and comforted the girl to ease the child’s anxiety.

“Look at my eyes,” said Alvarez, telling her student that wrong answers happen sometimes. “You’re still smart.”

With that, Laila’s tears dried. But a visitor watching this unfold in the hallway, just outside the classroom, couldn’t contain her own emotions. Charity Haygood, who once taught eighth-grade English to Alvarez at Newark’s Bragaw Avenue School, was so proud to see how her former student had touched this young girl’s life.

“You’re doing it,” said Haygood, now a principal at Brick Avon Academy in Newark.

The two women sat down moments later in Alvarez’s classroom. Her students — 15 of 29 who made it to school following last week’s snowstorm — had gone to music.

It was “surreal,” Alvarez said about her mentor, whom she’s known since fourth grade, observing her teach for the first time.

Haygood liked what she saw from her protege, now a fifth-year teacher. The children were focused as Alvarez, 26, encouraged them to think and explain their math strategies.

If they strayed, she kept them on track. “Snap, clap, bring it back,” Alvarez said. They repeated the catchy phrase and were concentrating again.

“Your kids are going to college,” said Haygood, tearing up once more.

The students believe it, too. Kelli Coleman’s 7-year-old son, Prince, who has improved his reading skills, now talks about college and becoming a lawyer. Coleman said she easily sensed the teacher’s passion and love for the classroom at back-to-school night, when Alvarez outlined her vision.

Destiny Horton, 7, was in Alvarez’s class last year and can’t wait to attend to Spelman College, the historically black school for women in Atlanta. Destiny constantly tells her mother that Alvarez graduated from Spelman and during their summer vacation last year, Horton drove several hours out of her way so her daughter could see the campus. They stopped, took pictures and texted them to Alvarez.

That’s the power of a teacher.

It was inevitable, it seems, that Alvarez would wind up a Newark classroom, just like Haygood, her mentor and mother figure.

Both took similar paths toward this noble profession. A Colorado native, Haygood started her teaching career in Newark in 1996 with Teach For America, a non-profit organization that recruits college graduates and trains them to teach in urban and rural schools.

Alvarez got her start the same way in 2013. Both could have left after their two-year assignments, but decided to stay. Haygood fell in love with the city, its people and neighborhoods and children at school.

For Alvarez, it must have been fate. During her first year, she taught first-graders at Bragaw Avenue School in the same classroom where she had been a fourth-grade student.

“I never felt more at home,” she said. “I felt like I had come full circle.”

It’s where she connected with Haygood, a solid, stalwart example of a dedicated teacher.

Educating Newark children, which she has done for 22 years, is not just a job to Haygood. Neither is it for Alvarez. It’s their conviction. They believe they are transforming lives in a city where young people are too often told to leave and not come back.

“If you love your community and see that we can really do great things, you don’t want to leave,” Haygood said.

She tells her students to stay, that Newark has a rich history of resilient people. Alvarez does, too.

Newark is their home. Their students see them on the street, at church, in the supermarket or at community events.

“It’s OK for you to be a part of the circle and to be a part of the community for your kids,” said Alvarez, a University High alum. “The work we do doesn’t happen in isolation. The village is real.”

Haygood is invested and doesn’t let up. When she arrived at Brick Avon Academy nine years ago, her school was one of the lowest performing in the district. Now it’s in the middle of the pack.

Parents respond to her leadership. Students do, too, especially when she has them shake her hand firmly while making eye contact. It’s a habit she wants them to develop, so they’ll be ready for that job or college interview.

“I’m going to college,” said Daunte Baker, 14, who understands why Haygood stays on them. “She wants us to succeed in life.”

Unless she has a meeting in the office, Haygood is all over the building, darting in and out of classrooms, talking to and challenging her students. At lunchtime, she dishes out high-fives, then asks them what they are going to do after school. In unison, an entire table of them shouted: “Read.”

Alvarez has seen this commitment since grammar and middle school. Now that she’s an adult, that same “go-hard” work ethic is a daily staple for Alvarez. Like Haygood, she comes to school early and stays late.

Whatever the children need, she’s on it. Extra attention in class, done. An appearance at an after-school activity, she’s there. Before the school year starts, Alvarez visits the homes of students on her class list. She wants them and their parents to know that they matter.

Every morning, Alvarez gets that point across when she has the class recite inspirational lines from “Every kid needs a champion.” It’s a TED Talks Education delivered powerfully in April 2013 by the late Rita Pierson, a Texas educator who called on teachers nationwide to build relationship with their students.

Alvarez does that with her children, who loudly proclaim these words:

“I am somebody. I was somebody when I came. And I’ll be a better somebody when I leave. I’m powerful and I am strong. I deserve the education I get here. I have things to do, people to impress and places to go.”

This is what Alvarez was getting at with Laila, the little girl upset by the math problem.

Even on a bad day, you are somebody and you still need a champion.

Alvarez, who learned from just such a champion, has become one herself.