June 06, 2021

In Newark and across the country, education authorities are planning a massive pandemic recovery.

Due to an unprecedented infusion of federal funds, the Newark School District has received more than $ 100 million in aid – and more is on the way. The district is planning summer programs and tutorials to get students back on track, and officials recently interviewed community members to generate more ideas.

But what do the students, who are at the center of all this planning and spending, really want from the rest?

On Wednesday, students from 11 traditional and charter high schools in Newark virtually gathered to discuss their experiences from the past year and find ways to get them back on their feet. The online event was jointly hosted by Chalkbeat Newark, the Newark News and Story Collaborative at WBGO, and Free Press.

Mirabel Chukwuma, a freshman at Weequahic High School, told the 70+ teens and adults who attended that their voices have power.

“Maybe we should be more open,” she said, so that students “get the education and help we need for the future”.

The pandemic, which hit Newark particularly hard, shook many students to the core.

School buildings that were once bustling beehives of learning, socializing, creating, and athletics closed their doors. Some students embraced the new flexibility of distance learning, but many others failed.

Older students in particular often found it difficult to concentrate at home, especially when keeping an eye on younger siblings or taking jobs to help their families with the bills. In the face of distractions and their own dwindling motivation, many students saw their grades and attendance take a nosedive.

“It’s been very stressful since the pandemic broke out,” one student said during a breakout session on Wednesday. “My grades just went down and down.”

It’s not just students’ homework that is suffering. At the event, young people said they felt exhausted and overworked. And after studying from home for over a year, some said they felt lonely and disconnected.

“We are human,” said one student, “we have to interact.”

The meeting on Wednesday gave the students not only the opportunity to share their common struggles, but also to find solutions.

Participants split into youth-led groups to brainstorm ideas on how students can recover from the pandemic. Aisha Oyediran from Central High School led a group that focused on mental health. Naheim Dixson of Malcolm X Shabazz High School led a discussion on academics. Daniela Palacios of Science Park High School hosted a college readiness talk, and Theodora Hoegah of North Star Academy led a group that focused on student advocacy.

The mental health group suggested regular health checkups and briefings to ensure students were aware of the resources available. The team of academics suggested spending more class time on key concepts rather than covering a lot of material quickly. The college readiness group said students need to start researching college and career opportunities as soon as they start high school. And the advocacy group suggested giving students one voice – and one voice – in school policy decisions.

“Often times, students are admitted to these rooms just to keep their seats warm – not to actually have decision-making powers,” said Stacy Tyndall, a mentor at The GEM Project, a Newark-based nonprofit that drives students into leadership and community activism .

The event was designed to increase student voices so that officials planning pandemic recovery can hear their concerns and possibly even involve students in the planning process. That vision was brought to life on Wednesday when Dawn Haynes, president of the Newark School Board, attended the meeting.

“I am eternally grateful that it was me [invited] and being able to get feedback on the things that matter to you as a student, “Haynes told the group about Zoom.” These conversations are being conducted “on how to spend the aid and get students back on course she added, “but not in a platform where students guide them.”

Tanesha Golding, a senior at Great Oaks Legacy Charter School, said it was a relief to hear students from across town describe how they faced similar challenges during the pandemic.

“This conversation made me feel like I wasn’t alone with this experience,” she wrote in a post-event poll.

“I also love that we didn’t just say the things that aren’t effective,” she added. “We found solutions.”

Below is a list of the solutions generated during Wednesday’s event.

Mental health

  • Regularly assess the mental health of students
  • Let students know what mental health resources are available
  • Offer mental health days
  • Help students get used to school again and make personal contacts
  • Destigmatize the search for psychological support

Academics

  • Create individual growth plans for students
  • Assign a manageable amount of work
  • Provide clear instructions and examples of tasks
  • Continue the teachers’ office hours

College readiness

  • Start preparing students for college in 9th grade
  • Teach college skills including critical thinking and essay writing
  • Offer tutoring during the school day to prepare students for college
  • Providing information and guidance on career paths

Student representation

  • Use social media to engage students
  • Invite students to school leadership / staff meetings
  • Ask students about their concerns
  • Train students to stand up for themselves and their classmates

This story was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit public education news organization. Sign up for their newsletter here.