May 27, 2021

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

Due to an unprecedented infusion of federal funds, Newark School District has received more than $ 100 million in aid – and more are on the way. The district is planning summer programs and tutoring to get students back on track, and officials recently surveyed community members to solicit 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 gathered virtually to discuss their experiences over the past year and find ways to relax. The online event was co-hosted by Chalkbeat Newark, the Newark News and Story Collaborative at WBGO, and Free Press.

Mirabel Chukwuma, a freshman at Weequahic High School, told 70+ young people and adults that their voices have power.

“Maybe we should be more open,” she said, so that students can “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, in which there was a lot to learn, socialize, make art and do athletics, closed their doors. Some students took advantage of the new flexibility of distance learning, but many others failed.

Older students in particular often had difficulty concentrating at home, especially when keeping an eye on younger siblings or taking jobs to help their families with bills. Given distractions and their own dwindling motivation, many students saw their grades and attendance take a nosedive.

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

It’s not just the students’ homework that has suffered. At the event, young people described feeling exhausted and overworked. And after more than a year of studying from home, some said they felt lonely and disconnected.

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

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

Participants split into youth-led groups to develop brainstorming methods that students can use to recover from the pandemic. Aisha Oyediran from Central High School led a group on mental health. Naheim Dixson of Malcolm X Shabazz High School had a discussion about academics. Daniela Palacios of Science Park High School facilitated a college readiness conversation, and Theodora Hoegah of North Star Academy led a group that focused on student advocacy.

The mental health group suggested regular wellness checkups and contacts to ensure students were aware of what resources are 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 learn about college and career opportunities immediately after starting high school. And the advocacy group suggested giving students one voice – and one voice – in school policy decisions.

“Often times, students are admitted into these rooms just to keep their seats warm – to avoid decision-making,” said Stacy Tyndall, mentor at The GEM Project, a Newark-based nonprofit that trains students in leadership and community activism.

The event was intended to amplify student voices so that officials planning to restore the pandemic could hear their concerns and possibly even involve students in the planning process. That vision was realized on Wednesday when Dawn Haynes, President of the Newark School Board, attended the meeting.

“I am infinitely grateful that it was me [invited] and being able to get feedback on things that are important to you as a student, “Haynes told the group about Zoom.” These conversations are “about how to spend the aid money and get students back on track,” she added, “but not on a platform for students to lead them on. “

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.

“Through this conversation I had the feeling that I was not alone with this experience,” she wrote in a poll after the event.

“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

  • Check students’ mental health regularly
  • 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 custom growth plans for students
  • Assign manageable amounts of work
  • Provide clear instructions and examples of tasks
  • Continue the teachers’ office hours

College readiness

  • Prepare 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 advocacy

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

This story was originally published by Chalkbeat, a non-profit news organization dedicated to public education. Sign up for your newsletter here.