The gap in academic achievement between black students compared to higher-income and white students remains an important concern for New Jersey educators. Only 13 percent of black students met the mark for 8th grade math level, according to the latest statewide tests conducted by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) in 2015. Moreover, black students consistently performed lower than their white and Asian peers-fewer than 30 percent met grade level standards for math and language arts requirements from Grades 3 through 8, while over 50 percent of white and Asian students met most grade level standards.

Marco Clark, above, who has worked as an educator, administrator, principal, and most recently founded his own charter school, will be discussing important steps educators, administrators and parents can take to best serve their students and boost academic performance of low-income black students at an upcoming event held by the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey. The event, entitled “Closing the Black Academic Achievement Gap,” will take place in the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton from 5:30 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, March 30. The event is free to the public, but pre-registration is required. For more information, visit www.aaccnj.com.

Clark says he will focus on how schools can help at-risk students by utilizing an “aggressive” approach, which includes holding schools and teachers accountable for their results in the classroom. Clark believes New Jersey students suffer at the expense of a powerful teachers’ union that fights to retain employment for educators, including those who may be underperforming.

“The teacher union does a great job with organizing labor contracts and benefits, but when the leader of the building understands that a teacher or staff member does not have what it takes but cannot replace them, who looses at the end of the day-it’s the child that looses more so than anyone,” says Clark.

Clark also highlights the importance of student voice in institutional decision-making and suggests that administrators initiate a dialogue with students on their individual academic performance. Clark underscores the importance of transparency, and communicating to students as well as their families the purpose and results of state-wide tests.

Clark says his own educational experience growing up with incommunicative administrators has informed the work he does today. Although Clark attests to the important support provided by his two parents, who both worked in business, he explains that he feels his educators in school largely failed him.

“I was the kid who went through school, had an issue with reading, and was never given the opportunity to have a solid diagnosis of what I was dealing with,” says Clark. “It wasn’t an issue that I couldn’t read but that I couldn’t comprehend. You would have thought that an educator would have been taught to recognize that.”

Clark explains that he could regurgitate words but struggled to comprehend sentences and was labeled functionally illiterate by a guidance counselor at the age of 11.

“[This] negative label stayed with me for the next 30 years until I found a way to overcome what that label really meant,” Clark says.

Clark says it was not until he got to college that he met educators that fostered his intellectual and academic growth and gave him the confidence to pursue a career in education, eventually earning a doctorate at Clark Atlanta University.

“I met an instructor who poured enough energy into me to show me that I could be a really great student and somebody that could go on to help change the world,” Clark says.

Clark began his career in education in the public school system, but found the lack of accountability required from teachers and schools consistently led to poor academic results on the part of students.

“I looked at the data that showed that our students weren’t performing or living up to standards, they weren’t changing socially, academically or emotionally, and yet folks were consistently operating as if they were these marvel educators,” Clark says.

Once Clark began working at charter schools, he found the increasing level of accountability required from him to be a gratifying challenge.

“The greatest difference between charter schools and public schools is that charter schools trade autonomy for accountability,” Clark says. “The more autonomy they are given the more accountability they are required to have, and if they don’t produce results they are subject to closure. The difference is that traditional schools can remain open for years without any progress and because they may have had a history in the neighborhood, they remain open.”

As the new CEO and founder of Richard Wright Public Charter School (RWPCS), which opened in 2011, Clark said he encourages students’ educational and personal development by teaching them skills that are exciting, applicable and relevant to their own lives. Clark explains that through the school’s focus on journalism and media, he hopes to equip students with the tools to tell their own stories and provide them with a powerful voice. He hopes graduates from his school can shape how the media reports on African Americans, and ultimately service the communities they come from.

Clark says that although he is confident and optimistic about the results and academic improvement of students at RWPCS, he remains concerned about the larger public school system in which it operates.

“I do believe that the traditional school system as we know it now is broken beyond repair,” says Clark. “I think that it needs to be torn down and restructured, and part of the restructuring is providing students with the opportunity of choice.”

Clark advocates for in a system that allows students to choose between charter and public schools, with tax-payer money following students to the institutions of their choice.

While Clark believes there is significant room for institutional improvement, he also stresses the importance that individual educators and personal relationships with children can have at any institution.

“As a whole, you need educators to be supportive and the greatest cheerleaders for kids,” Clark says. “We have to place all our hopes and dreams and aspirations in these educators, because the kids are hoping that the educators will help them reach their own hopes and dreams and aspirations.”

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