Rutgers University–Newark’s Department of Urban Education will partner with My Brother’s Keeper Newark (MBKN), an initiative of the Newark Opportunity Youth Network (NOYN), on an innovative course for Fall 2022 that draws on the lived experiences of youth and young adults from Newark who fared poorly in traditional K-12 school settings.
The course, titled, “Radical Teaching: The Voices of Youth Truth,” will flip the script on conventional education courses, combining academic research with seminars co-led by “opportunity youths,” people age 16 to 24 who became disconnected from school and employment and have re-engaged via NOYN’s learning academies and training initiatives, who will talk about what did and didn’t work for them, and the special challenges they faced, in conventional school settings.
It’s a model that alumnus Mark Comesañas (NCAS ’04), Executive Director of MBKN, has co-led for a decade at other colleges and is happy to be bringing to his alma mater.
“This course flips the power paradigm by positioning the young education ‘customer’ as the expert of what did and didn’t work for them,” said Comesañas, who taught in the Newark Public School system for eight years before pivoting to Principal of UPLIFT Academy and Head of Schools for LEAD Charter School prior to joining MBKN. “We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from pre-service teachers and undergraduate education majors and non-majors who have taken this course at other schools, because of the unique perspectives it offers them, and we're excited to share it with Rutgers-Newark students.”
The class, which will be listed in the RU-N Course Catalogue as a Special Topics course, is part of a larger effort by Comesañas, NOYN and the Urban Education department to tap RU-N's extraordinary student diversity to recruit, train and sustain a more varied educator pool.
One of the reasons this model is so powerful is that these are young people talking to other young people about their educational experiences, which really resonates.
Students from all across campus, regardless of their major, will be able to take the course, and Comesañas hopes to attract a broad cross-section of students from different racial, ethnic and gender backgrounds, including those who are certain they want to be teachers along with those who are considering the profession. He believes the innovative format will help.
“One of the reasons this model is so powerful is that these are young people talking to other young people about their educational experiences, which really resonates,” said Comesañas. “For instance, our young adults might discuss the heavy-handed disciplinary structure they faced as kids of color in their school system and how it adversely affected them—along with positive alternatives to that model. That’s just one example. There will be lots of conversations like this covering a variety of important topics.”
It’s also about looking at the structural issues in education through the eyes of opportunity youths and shifting the power paradigm in schools to “see students as assets in solving problems rather than problems to be solved,” according to Comesañas. He says that while examining low literacy and math rates, classroom management problems and other issues, too few adults in educational circles engage young people when they're trying to improve outcomes.
The new course will address this by covering topics such as discipline, special education, writing and math literacy, classroom management, college admissions and more, rotating through them in three-week cycles and including readings drawing on the latest research in classes led by Comesañas, combined with discussions led by youth facilitators.
Comesañas, who has been a leader in Newark’s educational and social-service sectors for decades, sees this course as an important shift in educating and developing a pipeline of diverse teachers to tackle pressing problems in our public education system.
"Kids of color need to see more teachers like them in our schools—we need diversity in the teacher ranks,” said Comesañas. “And as educators, we need to stop talking about the children without asking them how they’re doing. If we can start doing that, we’ll ensure kids stay in school, get the most out of it, and go on to lead fulfilling and productive lives.”