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Date: 2009-11-02

Success From Newark to Rwanda

It would be too easy to make this story about young kids in an under-served community seizing a charter school's promise for a better future.

Problem is, the story isn't about youth hardship and resilience, it's about just plain awesome kids.

The 1,000 young people at the four TEAM Charter Schools in Newark, NJ have opted for a top-of-the-line education that demands more time, energy and brainpower than any public school — and promises tireless support from teachers and faculty in return.

Yes, 36.6 percent of youth under 18 in Newark are living in poverty, and yes, the city's public schools rank among the lowest-performing in the state of New Jersey. And yes, students are not likely to graduate high school and college admissions are slim. But zip codes don't dictate individuals' drive to learn, and districts shouldn't decide who gets to thrive. So these kids take it into their own hands, opting for the challenge to push their academic limits.

Last week, TEAM Academy middle school students finished their annual Penny War, raising money to support TEAM in Africa, a program in which students directly impact the education and livelihoods of children in Kenya and Rwanda. With the leadership of super-teacher Ali Nagle, they raised $1,203.63 in pennies — further donations welcome! — and saw a dramatic sixth grade comeback win, barely passing the seventh graders at the eleventh hour. The students own the project, and it's not much of a surprise once you get to know them. It's a pretty special group of people leaving a pretty special mark on their community, their generation and the world.

It's Cool to Be Smart

TEAM Academy middle school is a place where it's genuinely cool to be smart. As seventh grader Briona Hawkins, 12 (at left, with Ayanna Costley in center and Whitney Brantley on right) says, "It's not one of those schools where if you're smart you're a geek. Well, even if you are, most people here are considered 'geeks' because we all do learn."

There's a public school across the street that lets out at 3 p.m. sharp. The 360 TEAM students hear the bell and the exodus of liberated youth. And while they likely daydream from time to time about joining their neighbors in the rush home for an after-school snack, their classes and activities put study hall to shame.

Hands-on, experiential learning is a priority, as is showing kids how their studies actually apply in the real world. Plugging away through Spanish class for a few semesters? Head to Puerto Rico and practice conversation immersion with the rest of your eighth grade class. All it takes is a 10 minute oral exam with Miss Melendez to make the grade — because, as one student tells me, at TEAM, "You have to earn everything you do." Studying geography and earth sciences? Take a class trip to the Grand Canyon and see the Great Wonder for yourself. (Students were having an after school "practice cook-out" the day I was there, making sure their burgers and hot-dogs were up to par before voyaging out west.) And while no one in my early education ever convinced me I'd use calculus on the outside, these math team stars with dreams of teaching algebra may actually have a future in exponents.

They mummify chickens as a farewell to lessons in Egyptian studies. They fashion elaborate dioramas representing scenes from a sixth grade favorite, Gary Paulson's Hatchet. They engage in heated debates during their Liberation Arts requirement. And while other kids have already settled into their after school lives, from 4:00-5:15 p.m., interested students participate in TEAM in Africa, a course teaching kids about their counterparts in Rwanda and Kenya and what they can do to support these new friends across the globe.

When Briona tells me, "The teachers make it fun," I'm starting to believe her.

Taking Education Seriously

For all that fun, however, there is a striking order and ease at the school. Ali Nagle's afternoon fifth grade reading class begins so peacefully I'm sure they are playing a trick on me. Students settle into a bright, worldly classroom, sit quietly at their desks and dive into their own books and periodicals for 15 minutes of free reading. Bob Marley is playing softly in the front of the room. A few students sit in a semi-circle on the carpet while Nagle's co-teacher, Miss Lochard, reads out loud to them.

The walls are covered with photographs from student trips to Africa, clocks telling international times (LA, Newark, Barcelona, Tehran, Tokyo), motivational signs and tips for reading and writing. On the wall across from me is a poster that reads: "There is nothing in all the world more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. You have a moral responsibility to be intelligent. — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr."

That message stays close to home in their own TEAM community. "I think it's definitely hard for kids who come here with a [low reading level]," says Briona. "But we don't judge them, we just help them. We want them to be on the same level, we want them to progress. We love everybody the same so we say, 'Come on, let's get some help.'"

Ayanna adds, "It's like a 'chain of being the change,' because if I help Brianna with her science homework, then she'll find another way to help somebody else. She could help Whitney do her reading homework ... we all try to be the change to help each other."

Sound altruistic for seventh graders? Wait til you hear how the students spend their free time.

Go Ahead and Do It

About six years ago, before coming to TEAM Academy, Nagle (pictured here, at left) started a pen-pal program at the New York public school where she formerly taught, connecting her students with kids in Zimbabwe. When she started teaching at TEAM four years ago, the program continued, this time with added enthusiasm from some students. Things reached a tipping point after she showed her class an Oprah documentary about schools in Africa. "There were a bunch of kids who said, 'Why can't we do that? Why can't we open a school?'" She laughs: "I was like, 'Because we live here in New Jersey?'"

Not even Nagle bought her cynical response. "I've come up with some crazy ideas for things I wanted to do [at this school]," she says, "and no one has ever told me no. They say, 'Sure, go ahead and do it!' I felt like I owed that to the kids."

A summer of research followed and students rallied. A contact at Indiana University introduced Ali to an English-speaking Rwandan who helped arrange an initial visit. Nagle took that first trip solo, spending a few weeks in Kenya and Rwanda getting her bearings long before developing plans bringing TEAM students on site visits. When she met with the headmaster of Kabwende Primary School in Rwanda and asked how she could best be of service, he told her that their greatest need was help with English skills, as the Rwandan government had recently changed the language of instruction from French to English. Nagle explained that while English opened doors for participation in the global economy — and softened trauma associated with reports of France's support of the Hutu militia during the Rwandan genocide — teachers had no aid or training to prepare for the crossover. "It would be like if [the principal here] told me I had to teach in Spanish tomorrow," she said.

The students hit the ground running, brainstorming ideas for how to offer support. To raise funds, two TEAM schools started the Penny War — brainchild of then-grade schooler Zahnik Underdue — during which time classes donate spare change in a competition where, students remind me, "Everyone is a winner." They partnered with Indiana University's internationally focused Global Village program and started publishing their own English books filled with drawings and stories and a bright, creative spirit. Then, a few of the most devoted students joined Nagle in Rwanda, presenting the kids with their books and visiting Kyandili Primary School.

Nagle pauses, then smiles: "All these kids trust and believe that what they're doing is having some kind of impact, but to touch the building that your pennies built is pretty cool."

In African communities where having a pencil for coursework could change the direction of a child's education, owning a book — likely the only one they have ever owned — is truly invaluable. And though TEAM students rarely have extra resources to spare, Nagle remembers being "really taken aback by their capacity to give."

She knows the importance of engaging youth in experiences and projects they can be proud of while they're still young. "They all know they're educating themselves, they're changing [perceptions]. ... When they go out and do great things, we want them to come back and change Newark; and I think they're realizing you don't have to wait until you're out of college. They're changing things right now."

Overcoming tough odds is only the tip of the iceburg; underneath, regardless of their hometown, we're better off for each future teacher (Whitney), lawyer (Briona) and CIA agent (Ayanna) well on their way to changing our world.

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