Avon Avenue School in Newark, New Jersey is a magical place. Although the building is old and shows the frailties of age, the inside smells of fresh paint from the murals of the heroes children celebrate every day. But far more important than the physical structure is the spirit of the school. This K-8 school of about 500 students is in the heart of one of the poorest cities in the nation, and students suffer from the trauma associated with those conditions. But to hear many of these students speak, you would never guess that they are anything but the promising scholars of wealthy suburban schools.
My conversations with middle school students in particular were illuminating. Adolescents have a pretty clear job description: resist authority, test boundaries, and avoid any engagement with adult conversation. If that is your stereotype, let me invite you to have breakfast with 8th grade students at Avon. They readily engaged in conversations about where they were going to high school and college, what they wanted to do as adults, and how they had been prepared - since Kindergarten! - for a lifetime of success. When I asked, “What would you like me to tell your teachers?” they replied, “Just tell them that they are good people.”
I do not want to leave the impression that this is always a happily ever after story. Avon School has many challenges. Parents have died, students suffer trauma, and a significant majority need to improve their reading scores. But fearless leaders and teachers at this school confront these challenges with integrity. Like their wealthier suburban counterparts, students at Avon have music, art, and physical education. They have school leaders, like Ms. Haygood and Ms. Johnson, who know them by name and notice every nuance of facial expression and vocal inflection. If something is wrong at home or in school, they notice it and attend to it.
So if your spirits are down and you want to watch magic happen, visit Avon School. It’s a place where students say of their teachers, “These are good people.” I would happily settle for that epitaph.