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Date: 2010-04-11

What Started As a Charter School in Newark Has Turned Into So Much More

Submitted by Ali Nagle, a fifth grade reading teacher at TEAM Academy in Newark, N.J. Ali joined the school in 2004 following her Teach For America placement in New York City.

Five years ago, when I thought of Africa, images of lions, zebras and khaki clad foreigners on safari sprang to mind. Swelling statistics surrounding HIV rates, poverty, dirty water, civil war and political coups were not far behind.

But back then, I was a different person. I had just finished my two-year placement for Teach For America in New York City and was moving to Newark, N.J. Like many Teach For America alums, I was staying in the classroom, but at a very different school kind of school: TEAM Academy.

TEAM Academy is a charter school in Newark. At TEAM, we know every local child can succeed in college and go on to change the world. Everyone in the building approaches this goal each day with a simple guiding principle in mind: "Work hard. Be nice." From 7:25 a.m. until 5 p.m., students push themselves to become better readers, mathematicians, writers, artists and scientists, but above all they push themselves to become better people.

After less than a year at TEAM Academy, I showed my students a documentary about Oprah Winfrey's school for girls in South Africa. As the credits rolled, hands shot into the air.

"Why can't we do that?" they asked.

"Do what?"

"Start a school ... help the kids in Africa. They need help. We can help." Heads began to nod in agreement and with that, my world was forever changed by a classroom of eighth graders. Months later, TEAM in Africa was born. Together with a determined and compassionate group of middle school students and a ridiculously supportive administration, we ran fundraisers and wrote pen pal letters to two schools: one in Rwanda and one in Kenya. We found out our partners needed English text books, new buildings, funds for tuition and basic school supplies. We planned more fundraisers and worked on spreading the word and getting more people in involved — including the other three schools in TEAM Schools network.

Fast forward four years and the students of TEAM Schools have raised nearly $8,000 to fund the construction of two new classrooms and a library in Kenya and written dozens of pen pal letters to new friends in Kenya and Rwanda. We also have partnered with Indiana University's Global Village to write English children's books for our partner school in Rwanda.

Since we started TEAM in Africa, I have visited our partner schools in Rwanda and Kenya several times, even taking students last summer. Each time I step foot in Africa, I thank the students of TEAM Academy. They continue to look beyond the walls of their classroom, beyond the confines of their city, and beyond the borders of our nation and each day, they embody the change they wish to see in the world.

Today, when I think of Africa, I think of hope, dedication, progress and opportunity. I think of Jackson Nyzoki and the entire parent committee and community at Kyandili Primary in Kenya. When I returned to the village in July 2009, I found the head of the parent committee at the site of the two classrooms, helping to build them himself.

When I think of Africa, I know longer think of khaki clad foreigners, but instead I think of Sammy, a mischievous first grader at Ndonyo Wasin, marching around in his red and blue uniform. Since age two, Sammy has been sneaking into the grade one classroom, listening in on everything the students and teachers chatter about. After being chased away for two years, finally Sammy was old enough to attend school. He earned his uniform and paraded around the village. Now, not even five, Sammy is on his way to reading in three different languages: English, Samburu and Swahili. Africa is not a picture of poverty or wild animals. It's the smiles of students and teachers at Kabwende Primary in rural Rwanda, clutching their very own book and preparing to write English stories of their own. In a country torn apart by genocide, the students at Kabwende equip themselves with an education that will allow them to shape their country's future.

Come and see the faces of Kenya, our projects at Kyandili Primary School and meet the students who inspired these ground breaking program this Thursday, April 15 from 7-9 p.m. at the Majestic in Jersey City, N.J. Click here to learn more about TEAM in Africa and let the students of Newark change your world too.

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