How a Newark charter school has transformed my son's life | Opinion

By Star-Ledger Guest Columnist
on December 12, 2015

By Natasha Levant

Monday, I am headed to Trenton along with over 100 other charter school parents just like me from all over New Jersey to talk with lawmakers about my child.

My goal is to speak with any legislator who I know will be making decisions about charter schools next year – including a bill in the New Jersey Legislature that would impose a moratorium on charter school expansion in the state – and making sure that they know about my son. He is a 13-year-old, African-American boy growing up in Newark whose future is bright because he attends North Star Academy Charter School—an Uncommon School that is not only preparing him for college and beyond, but working with me as a parent to instill the character and responsibility he needs to be successful.

I want to stress, especially to those lawmakers who have never stepped foot inside a charter school but who may be making decisions about them, that my son is not an easy child. I've heard people who are just not knowledgeable swear up and down that charter schools take only the best kids or encourage the troublemakers or kids with special needs to leave.

My son is the poster kid of the child that people say doesn't exist in charter schools.

Just the other day, I got a phone call from my son using his teacher's phone at 10 a.m. He was anxious and having a tough time at school and needed a pep talk from me. His teacher knew this, so she made time for him to call me, and soon he was back at work. That's not an example of a school making it hard for young black boys. That's a school ensuring that its black boys get what they need to be successful and grow.

My son has an IEP (individualized education plan) for a non-specific learning disorder. He has a tough time with comprehension. He has trouble expressing himself. He's smart, but sometimes the words form in his head and he just can't get his thoughts out. When that happens, he gets frustrated and shuts down. He may act out. He may get angry. But his teachers know this and not only accept it, they are ready with different ways to talk him through it and bring him back to positive behavior as quickly as possible so he can get back to his schoolwork.

His teachers know that building him up is the most important way for him to feel and be successful. So I often get a bunch of phone calls telling me how well he did in school that day. They will call me to say "Ms. Levant, he had a superb day—he raised his hand in class," or "He worked really hard on his project and presented it to the whole class." Don't get me wrong, I get the calls when he's acting out, too. But they know well the Frederick Douglass saying that it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.

I couldn't ask for better teachers. It has simply amazed me how teacher after teacher has invested in my son—when he is good and especially when he is bad. They simply never give up on him. Not only do I appreciate all the supports my son gets, I know that he's in a high-quality school – our students did better than the state's economically advantaged students on the most recent PARCC exams.

I understand deeply how much a school like North Star means to Newark. I have an older son who was at North Star, but many years ago, I let him transfer in 9th grade to a school that at the time had more sports. It was a terrible mistake. His sister stayed at North Star and has since graduated from college. But my older son didn't finish high school on time, and though he eventually got his high school degree, he didn't go to college and now has a part-time job that doesn't make ends meet. It was a painful lesson for both of us—a school like North Star can change lives.

So what do I want to say to elected officials on Monday? I know you have been hearing from certain groups that you should put a moratorium on charter growth. Come visit my child's school. Meet my child, meet his teachers. And until you do, please don't even think about making a decision that will affect his life and the life of thousands of others just like him.

Natasha Levant is a resident of Newark and mother of five.

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