“Not All Children Learn and Develop in the Same Way”: Q&A with Asia J. Norton of Newark

This post is part of a series of interviews conducted for our Eight Cities project. Read all related posts here.

When education policymakers, legislators, and lawmakers operate in isolation, they can seem distant or removed from the communities they serve. So what happens when a policymaker is also a teacher and a parent?

In advance of the summer 2020 relaunch of our Eight Cities project, we spoke with Asia J. Norton, a third-generation Newark teacher and parent who serves on the Newark Board of Education.

As a young student, Asia’s struggles with literacy led her mother to switch Asia into a different school. In this conversation, she talks about ensuring that every Newark parent has the opportunity to choose a school that is the right fit for their child.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you become so deeply involved in education at multiple levels?

I was born into education. Both my grandmother and mother were teachers in Newark. But as a child, I wasn’t served well by my local public school. By the time I reached fifth grade, I barely knew how to read. My mother, being a parent and an educator, recognized that I needed something different. She pulled me out of my public school, used the social security money she received from my father’s death, and enrolled me in a private school.  That experience prompted me to observe the differences between my school and the school where my mother taught — it felt like two different education systems.

I knew policy was driving a lot of the inequities I saw, so after college I [got] involved in education policy. But I knew that if I truly wanted to make an impact on education policy, I needed to be in the classroom and have the practitioner perspective.

Being a teacher is definitely different than talking about teaching. Although my grandmother and mother were teachers, I wasn’t a teacher until I was in front of kindergarten students teaching them how to read. And because of my struggles as a student, I developed a passion for literacy education. As a teacher I continued to see the differences in school quality in my community. I saw how getting the right seat can make an enormous difference.

Can you say more about your experience running and serving on the school board?

My son is eight, and I’ve had to think about selecting the schools that work best for him and with my job as a working mom. I’ve had lots of different questions. That’s what led me to run for the school board so I could think about how school board policies affect students.

When I ran, I felt that there was a lack of diverse voices. I’m the only teacher currently on the board. You need that perspective. What I offer as an elementary teacher is knowing about literacy development, teacher training, materials, and resources. I’m constantly pushing for policies that will help our teachers develop into great practitioners for all of our children. And as a parent, I challenge the board to consider whether we are creating an environment that allows for parent engagement to happen.

How did you choose a school for your son?

I came to this process with a lot of prior information from my career, my family’s experience, and other educators (my mom and aunt are still teaching in the district). So I decided that these four things were important to me when looking for a school:

  • School hours. As a working parent, I needed to know if I could get my son to school and pick him up at a reasonable time that worked with my schedule.
  • Reading program. I chose [my son’s current school] because I was familiar with the reading instruction and the intentionality around reading. I knew there would be an explicit focus on comprehension strategies and unpacking the science of reading.
  • Climate and culture. I knew the structure would be good for my son [at his current school]. I didn’t want him to find ways around learning or to be punished and hate learning. I needed a happy medium of structure.
  • Proximity to home. I didn’t want to attend a school that would require me to drive across town. I wanted my son to attend a school in the neighborhood he’s growing up in.

What advice would you give to parents navigating the Newark school system?

I’d encourage parents to be honest about the needs of their children. Not all children learn and develop in the same way. Does your child need structure or a more relaxed environment? Do they enjoy math, science, arts? Then think about what your family needs. What start and stop hours work for you? Do you need access to before and after care?

We also have the all-school fair, where all charter and traditional schools gather in one space with principals and teachers from those schools. Schools also have open houses at the elementary school and high school level. Finally, I’d encourage parents to visit schools. Treat this process like you’re going to college. Find a time to visit and talk with students and teachers to get a sense of the school’s climate and culture.

I struggled in [the Newark public] school system. I was passed from grade to grade and told I was fine even though I couldn’t read. No child should have that experience.

* We have anonymized the schools referenced by interviewees — our goal is to highlight local experiences and allow interviewees to be candid. In the interest of transparency please note that some schools, districts, or networks mentioned have been Bellwether clients. A full list of all our past and current clients is available on our website here.