My name is Robert Bajor and I teach in the worst High School in New Jersey.
Amongst all of the headlines, you might be asking yourself, "How do you know that you're teaching in the "worst" High School in New Jersey? Recently I was looking at headlines related to the school in which I work, and I spotted this one. This didn't come as a surprise to me because I make myself very aware of the NJ DOE Academic Achievement Reports related to my place of employment.
But, this has been my plan all along.
You see, a few years ago I was happily working at a monoclonal antibody facility in central New Jersey and I couldn't help but wonder if what I was doing was making a real impact. So, rather than simply contemplate and leave it at that, I decided to start making a change. It all started with weekend ventures into New Jersey inner city districts to volunteer my professional expertise to public schools. I had the privilege of landing a few tutoring opportunities with the Elizabeth School District at Hamilton Preparatory Academy. I also volunteered my time for the Rutgers University 4H cooperative extension: Summer Science Program. These volunteer opportunities enabled me to leverage the skills I had been using to develop cancer diagnostics technologies to help high school students prepare for a future in biotechnology.
This was the beginning.
Soon, I was taking the PRAXIS II exams in biological sciences and general science. This was the first step in getting my standard certification for teaching high school level courses for students grades 6-12. Next, I was enrolled in an alternate route instructional course for professionals making the shift from industrial/academic/commercial sciences to full-time instruction. When all was said and done, I found myself amongst the top 10% of PRAXIS scores throughout the state of NJ and after completing the year long aforementioned course equivalent to two semesters of formal university education coursework, I had my certificate. I was ready to make a difference.
Rather than applying elsewhere, I decided to stay in Elizabeth. Why? Because after a quick DOE search of New Jersey school performance scores, I found that the school I ventured to every Tuesday and monthly saturdays was in the bottom 10th percentile state-wide. How could a school that catered to professionals like me be scores so poorly? How could I take all of the skills I had acquired over that year, and simply leave on to greener pastures? It was clear that schools like the one I was training in needed teachers like me the most.
My mission went from general to specific really fast. I needed to stay, I needed to help, how could I not?
This brings us to now. I am currently teaching for the Elizabeth, NJ school system; At the Edison Career and Technical Academy. Which, in 2012 was ranked 327 out of the 328 high schools in New Jersey (The 328th school is also in Elizabeth).
This got me thinking, why is it the worst? Why was it ranked so low? What does it mean to work at this particular school?
When a student leaves the school, 40% of which will not have a high school diploma, will a prospective employer or University take a minute to find out that Edison is a "Focus School" or that almost 80% of the students receive free or reduced lunch? Will they know that about 1% of the student population is considered "Advanced Proficient?"
They won't. Because it doesn't matter.
After thinking about this for a long moment, I realize that none of these statistics matter. The only thing that would matter to a prospective employer is, "Is this individual qualified for the job that they are applying and interviewing for?" And, rightfully so. There are no free or reduced lunches in the real world. And despite all of my education, hard work, and lofty intrinsic mission it won't matter unless I can translate these students' precarious situation into measurable results.
Now, It's important for me to mention that I am fully aware that the school system is convoluted, some would say "broken." But politics and ideology aside, very little of that is taken into account once these students leave our public school system. And I agree with that. So where does that leave us? Where does that leave me? Where do we go from here now that we know this information?
Well, for me it ups the ante. You see, I have always been competitive and I share the American sentiment for under dogs. But this is a stretch. How can I get these students ready for the big game? I needed a plan, and there wasn't any time to waste.
Here was my plan:
I needed to stop making excuses for these kids, and create a curriculum that would incorporate skills that the worlds greatest entrepreneurs and thinkers would recognize as valuable.
Fortunately I have maintained an intellectual love-affair with role models that had always put me slightly ahead of the curve. It's not a coincidence that when I was a teenager I was making 12 times more than minimum wage setting up internet networks for former NJ state governors. It wasn't a coincidence that I received a presidential letter of merit for leadership, alongside a community commendation for leadership while attending High School. I am a leader, and it's because I've studied leaders since I was young enough to read. My first leadership sensei was my grandmother. A woman who had lobbied against racial and gender discrimination in her twenties, before it was cool. A woman who had taught me to read when I was 4; possibly the greatest gift anyone could receive. She was my prometheus.
Once I started reading, I stumbled upon several books that would cement my passion for logic. Hawking, Sagan, and Feynman were drafted onto my dream team for who and what I wanted to be. These individuals sheer brain power was staggering for an elementary school kid's imagination. I can recall being asked to stay after class because of casual mention of abolitionism, "pure thought", and Energy-Matter duality. To say the least, I was a nerd.
Now, let me inform the reader of a certain fact, one that might not be intuitive. I never had the opportunity to fail, and iterate until I succeeded. There was no safety net in my circus of life. I grew up in Rahway NJ, a city known more for it's state prison then for it's world class anything. Not only did I grow up in an unremarkable township, I was a kid that was statistically destined for destitution rather than greatness. My mother, who is amongst my greatest inspirations, raised me by herself. Somewhere in between holding several jobs, pursuing her gradate degree in management, and taking care of her extended family found time to raise a single son. Well, that's not fair. My mother and I have maintained more of a room mate status rather than a matriarchy. But this was out of pragmatist rather than choice. There was no time for picnics in the park, softball practice, and "family time." But, this is the reality for most families in our situation. In fact, this is the reality for a growing majority of our American population.
Life is hard, so maybe this was the best preamble for what would become a personal mission in removing mediocrity from the possible answers in my multiple choice lifestyle.
Lets go back to the here and now. Why don't any of my 300+ students social and economic handicaps matter? Because they're going to graduate and compete with students who were dealt a winning hand from the first deal. My students are going to have to learn when to push, when to draw, when to bluff, and when to settle. Meanwhile, there are going to be young adults whose biggest problem is going to decide whether they want to play the straight, or split their pairs. I apologize if you're not a poker player, this might be an opportunity to substantiate my metaphor with a wikipedia search. Poker is a great game. Your welcome.
What I've realized after reflecting on my schools dismal status isn't that it's a statistic that I should recon with despair. If you're following along hopefully you'll realize what I'm getting at...
By attending the worst school in the state, my students are given the opportunity to learn all of the rules of the game.
You see, by growing up under poor conditions, attending an unremarkable school, and having to struggle my entire life I've learned not only how to succeed when it's easy. I've learned how to succeed when there is no alternative. We all find ourselves in free fall at some point in our lives. When there is no emergency exit; No safety net. We, as contemporary Americans need to create our own opportunities and seize our destiny from those opportunities that we've created. That's how life works. At least, for a growing majority of us.
We are my students. That's why I've been compelled to teach in the worst school district in the state. Because I have to. There isn't anyone else to fulfill my mission. Unless of course you're reading this and relate on some level. Then it's also your only choice. It should become your mission. Stop talking about how bad the state of affairs in our country have gotten. Stop pointing out everything that's wrong, like the authors of the article I started with, and join the fight! Do what I've done and turn your greatest challenges into a launch pad for your dreams and the dreams of those you care for.
What began as a mission to educate and inspire, for me has become a call to arms.
Join the Fight.