As protests against police brutality and systemic racism grip the nation, Black in Bayonne focuses on the school system.
At last week’s Bayonne Board of Education meeting, black residents addressed the lack of black teachers.
Before the meeting, residents led a protest calling for the resignation or immediate removal of Trustee Michael Alonso for his comments that most residents agree are racist and an incitement to violence. The protest was organized by local businesswomen Shawnda Jacobs and Ortavia Jackson and supported by Black in Bayonne.
Black in Bayonne is a local activist group that organized the Power in the Park demonstration, the Juneteenth flag raising and recently held a candlelight vigil for Breonna Taylor and other black women lost to all forms of violence. Co-founder Camille High and other members of the group attended the protest, outside the board’s meeting room at Bayonne High School.
The protest was led by Shawnda Jacobs, who brought it inside where Black in Bayonne and other residents addressed the board.
Advocating for students of color
Camille High, one of the powerful voices behind Black in Bayonne and an educator herself, took to the podium.
“We are currently experiencing two pandemics, as you all know,” she said. “Right now we are experiencing racism and COVID-19.”
High asked what the board is doing to support black and brown students. The board had approved a social and emotional outreach program to help students cope with COVID-19.
High wondered if there would be any counselors who “look like her” to support students of color, as communities of color are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.
“As of right now, I’m looking at the board, and nobody looks like me,” she said. “So is the social and emotional outreach, whoever they are, are they going to be a representative for students that look like me?”
Born and raised in Bayonne, High explained how having a black teacher inspired her to become an educator.
“I actually wanted to be an educator because someone looked like me,” she said. “So I do think it is very important that if you are going to bring someone that’s from a social and emotional outreach, they do look like the students who are going through two pandemics.”
Breaking the stigma
Trustee Jan Patrick Egan said that the board votes only on hiring recommendations. Trustee Joseph Broderick noted that Assistant Superintendent of Personnel Ken Kopacz goes to schools and tries to recruit black educators.
Board President Maria Valada said that sometimes they don’t always receive applications from qualified black college students.
“There is a stigma and a stereotype that black educators are not welcome here,” High said. “I wanted to become a black educator because of a black woman, because of Jane Roberts.”
“She stood before me, and she looked like me,” High said. “I cut my hair so I could be like her. I walked into my classroom so I could be like her. Representation does matter.”
Camille said while she appreciated Kopacz outreach to recruit black educators, there is a disconnect between the black community and the school system.
“Is there a way we can connect so we can bring more black educators in?” High asked.
Camille’s sister Clarice High is a fellow organizer for Black in Bayonne. According to Camille, Clarice worked for the Board of Ed while earning her degree. She now works for East Orange, due to the stigma in Bayonne.
“This is another black educator we are missing out on,” Camille said. “Is there any way we can create a sit-down, to try and break down these stereotypes?”
The comprehensive equity team
Kopacz highlighted what is currently being done to recruit black educators and invited Black in Bayonne to be a part of it.
“We have a comprehensive equity team. We meet on a yearly basis, it’s a three-year plan. We would love to have you,” Kopacz said. “We look at board responsibilities, staff development and training, school and classroom practices, and hiring practices.”
Kopacz said he goes to local job fairs at state schools and has been recruiting minority candidates. The city recently hired 11 staff members, 50 percent of whom are minorities.
Camille said Black in Bayonne would like to be part of the team, but asked again what is being done to support students of color amid the two pandemics.
“We do have our guidance counselors,” Kopacz said. “We do understand the issues that we have right now, and we take them very seriously.”
Camille asked how many of the counselors are black or brown. Only one, Kopacz said.
Only 19 black educators in Bayonne
Rev. Dorothy Patterson of Wallace Temple AME Zion Church also spoke.
“In a school system where we have 10,000 students, how is it that we only have 19 African American teachers?,” she asked. “You cannot tell me there are not African Americans that are qualified to teach in this school system.”
Patterson took issue with the idea that no black educators were applying for jobs in Bayonne, noting that she has given applications of black educators to the board.
Patterson asked who gets the applications, as many of the black educators whose applications she forwarded never got a call back.
Kopacz said applications are received by principals. A committee is formed for the interview process, and the board votes on the hiring recommendation by the principal.
“We do not screen those candidates nor do we want to be making decisions for the people who are in charge of the building or department,” Kopacz said.
Patterson questioned if the principals are held accountable.
Schools Superintendent John Niesz said that would work with Rev. Patterson as a team.
“If we have an opening, we need to reach out to the community and be reflective of the community,” Niesz said, “and we can do that and work as a team.”
Black in Bayonne plans on keeping the pressure on the board until change is accomplished. At the vigil for Breonna Taylor and other black women lost to all forms of violence, Camille encouraged attendees to make their voice heard at the next board meeting.
That meeting is on July 27 at 6 p.m.
For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.