NEWARK, N.J. — Nydresha is a small girl with big dreams about Hawaii.
In her dreams, the 12-year-old and her mother live in a beach house. There is peace, and there is quiet. There is no drama, no abandoned houses and no cursing — not even by Nydresha herself. She curses sometimes in real life but always feels badly about it afterwards.
Nydresha’s mother, known on the streets as Lil’ Bit for the tiny stature she passed on to her only child, likes how the girl thinks. She’d be up for moving to Hawaii, too, she says, if not for one problem: “I ain’t got no money.”
And so Nydresha is staying put in her hometown, where she finished sixth grade last month at Quitman Street Renew School. Serving 600 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, Quitman is part of a reform effort in a school district where petty, energy-draining bickering — the “drama” of Nydresha’s world — recently has extended to high-ranking officials. Newark’s embattled superintendent, Cami Anderson, stopped attending school board meetings this year because the acrimony has gotten so out of control. Some regarded a nationally watched mayoral election in May as a referendum on her leadership, even though the state runs Newark’s schools. The new mayor would like to see Anderson ousted and charter school expansion halted, but those aren’t his decisions.
Quitman Principal Erskine Glover believes none of the political noise will make a difference for his school. A hotly contested plan to let families select where in the city their children go to school will merely result in a small enrollment increase. While some policies do bear weight, like whether Glover will be forced to hire tenured teachers other schools did not want to fill vacancies for next academic year, he says what matters most is what he can control the least: his students’ lives beyond the academic day. What kind of homes do they return to each night, and how much time do they spend studying? Are their parents involved in their education? How well are they eating and sleeping? Are they involved in extracurricular activities that motivate them to strive? Do they get a reaction from the adults around them when they do something well, or only when they mess up?
How to turn around failing public schools is one of the most vexing and pressing questions in American society today, and two years ago, Anderson tapped Quitman to take part in Newark’s attempt at solving the problem. The idea was to lift the school and others from the ranks of New Jersey’s lowest performers by giving exceptional principals the power to hire great teachers as well as extra technology and other resources. And while that strategy might still bear fruit, the reality at Quitman has proven to be messy and complex, as public policies intersect with private lives.
Today, the school’s fate is still up in the air. A weary Glover and his staff are waiting to see the impact of their toils — in terms of test scores and, more importantly, life prospects of their students, who are predominantly African-American and living in poverty.
Nydresha, whose last name is being withheld for her protection, is at a delicate turning point, too. She has reached a paradoxical age where she still looks like a child — she has yet to reach 5 feet tall and thinks she weighs somewhere between 60 and 70 pounds — but her decisions carry increasingly grown-up consequences.
She wants to succeed and, for a time this past year, stayed after school for tutoring, but her grades are all over the map and she sometimes gets lured into chatting with friends in class when she should be working. She will enter seventh grade in September reading and doing math at a fifth-grade level, but she won one of the six “Most Improved” awards that her math teacher distributed at a year-end assembly, having raised her grade from an F to a C-plus.
Last winter, Nydresha wanted to be a lawyer because she liked the idea of defending the innocent, but then she decided, based on courtroom TV, that people who do wrong should fend for themselves. Her aspirations in the past six months have included fashion designer, mystery writer, video editor, “someone who works with animals” and, most recently, radio talk show host.
She fiercely loves her mother, who has Nydresha’s name and a heart tattooed on her neck, yet longs for more attention from her dad, who is busy with two younger daughters from another relationship but still sees her frequently. She talks simultaneously of her desire to move, if not to Hawaii, “somewhere far, far away” and of having at Quitman “the most coolest, supportive friends ever,” as she described classmates Aliyah, Sarah, Keysha, Ashanti, Princess, Nyasia and Gloria in an English essay.
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