NJ Parent Summit readies parents, educators for new era in Newark

ByElana Knopp
NJ Parent Summit

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As Newark sits on the cusp of regaining local control of its schools, educators and parents are preparing to help lead the charge towards education reform. And at this year’s NJ Parent Summit, it was all about parent engagement, student advocacy and readying for the change that many believe is coming.

Now in its second year, the summit brought together 200 parents from across the state for an opportunity to connect with policymakers, school leaders, education experts and advocates for a three-day event aimed at motivating, educating and empowering parents.

Sponsored by the Better Education Institute, KIPP NJ, JerseyCAN, Newark Charter School Fund, Uncommon Schools, DFER and iLearn Schools and held at the Woodbridge Renaissance Hotel in Iselin on August 4-6, the event offered parents the opportunity to attend a variety of workshops and hear a diverse lineup of speakers.

Education advocacy, college preparation, lobbying for education reform and building partnerships between district and charter parents were just some of the issues discussed at the event.

Speakers included state and local legislators, education advocates and education influencers.

Summit co-founder Shennel McCloud, director of advocacy at KIPP NJ, said that the event was founded in the belief that parents should have access to the same kind of knowledge, development and empowerment that educators do.

“I couldn’t understand why there wasn’t the same kind of development for parents,” McCloud said of her motivation behind spearheading the initiative. “After all, it takes a community to educate a child.”

McCloud said she spoke to more than 100 parents prior to the summit, which doubled in number of attendees from last year, to guage their needs, interests and concerns.

In addition, McCloud stressed that the event is geared towards families as a whole.

“This is for parents and families—moms, grandmoms, dads,” she said. “We want to develop the full family in order to develop the full child. And we didn’t just want to have parents and families in the room; we wanted to attract administrators and teachers. There’s often a gap and we wanted to utilize the summit to bridge that gap.”

Cary Booker, of the Newark Charter School Fund, said that parents are integral to education reform in communities.

“I hope that this kind of event can bring parents together for ways to strengthen their communities,” he said. “It’s really exciting to see this kind of energy around education reform. I would hope that parents come away feeling empowered, gain useful information and with an idea of what their next step is as far as how to be engaged with their communities.”

With the state Board of Education’s recent recommendation to return local control back to Newark’s school board after 20 years, Booker said he hopes to see real community engagement and involvement on the part of parents.

“We hope to see a real discussion about what Newark’s educational system will look like in this new era,” Booker said. “Newark is uniquely poised for this.”

Friction between charter and public school parents was a popular topic at the event, and the issue of building partnerships between the two was brought up during several workshops.

“The way the narrative plays out drives the divide,” Booker said, noting that charter and public school parents are striving for the same outcome. “We all want to see an outstanding system of public education that is meeting the needs of our kids.”

And parents agree.

Verndrey Elliott, a parent-organizer in the city who attended the event, has had her four children in public, charter and private schools throughout Newark. She says that a common desire for great education for all for Newark’s kids, combined with the city’s impending autonomy, is fertile ground for great things to come.

“We have local control back in the City of Newark,” Elliott said between workshops at the event. “It’s on paper. The light bulb moment for me today is that we all just want to bring education in Newark into the 21st century. Parents have asked for quality. Our district now belongs to us. It’s about policy and innovation. We need to use funds more resourcefully.”

As a parent who has put her kids through a variety of educational systems, Elliott is confident that some of the ongoing conflict between charter and public school parents can be diffused.

“This thing with charter and public school parents—this is going to change,” she said. “We’re going to work it out.”

Tafshier Cosby-Thomas, a citizen-advocate in Newark and a presenter at the event, has also put her own children through Newark’s public, charter and private schools.

“I’ve been forever about choice and making sure our kids have the best education possible,” she said. “It doesn’t matter the vehicle.”

Cosby-Thomas, who is the chairwoman of a parent-teacher association at a charter school, as well as a member of the PTA at a public school—both in Newark — said that she has faced the same dilemma of declining education that her own mother faced years ago.

But now, Cosby-Thomas said, she is hopeful that change is imminent — as long as there is increased collaboration between parents and schools.

“We need to build parent coalitions that are working together for the same quality of education for all,” she said. “We all share and it’s all good.”

State Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, who is a member of the Assembly’s Education Committee, spoke at the summit and said she wants parents to know that their voices and actions matter.

“My hope is that parents learn how to increase their unity and understand that engagement with their child and school is vital,” McKnight said.

For Booker, it’s all about community input and giving a voice to parents.

“We need to be able to talk about the progress that people are making,” he said. “We are poised to do that.”