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Helping students rebound after pandemic is top of mind for new Newark board member

Woman wearing a red top with one hand up looks into the camera as she gets sworn in for school board in a virtual meeting.

Crystal Williams, the newcomer Newark school board member, took the oath of office at the reorganization meeting on May 5, 2022.

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Crystal Williams, the newly elected member of the Newark Board of Education, has safety, school culture, and academic recovery at the forefront of her agenda as she takes office.

Williams, who accrued the most votes in the April 19 school board election, was sworn into a three-year term — and her first elected position — at last week’s virtual reorganization meeting. Reelected board members A’Dorian Murray-Thomas and Daniel Gonzalez also took the oath of office. The three ran on a slate backed by powerful politicians including Mayor Ras Baraka, who won reelection to a third term on Tuesday.

Williams said at the meeting that she knows there is a lot of work to be done to help students rebound from the pandemic. “I am just here ready to serve, ready to do what’s necessary to make sure the kids get what they need. We need to emerge from this pandemic not the same, but stronger and smarter and kinder, with the commitment to do what’s right for the kids.”

Williams, a network technician at Verizon for more than 20 years, sees her role on the board like that of a customer service representative.

“If you don’t give your customers a quality product, then your customer service is lacking, and a competitor steps in and takes your customer,” she said during a recent interview. “It’s the same way for the students and parents of the Newark Public Schools system. They are our customers and we should be providing them with high quality service and education.”

And, in those terms, she says she deeply understands what her new “customers” want from the board.

As a single mom of seven children who currently attend or have attended public and charter schools in Newark, Williams has seen deteriorating school buildings, lunches that make her kids lose their appetites, a lack of classroom resources, and low test scores.

She’s also seen the unsafe routes children take to and from schools and she hopes to address them, though she wasn’t sure how exactly. “This is all new to me, but I’m going to be asking a lot of questions,” she said. She also said the pandemic’s toll on students’ academic progress is a huge concern as is school culture, with low teacher morale affecting students’ motivation.

“I want students’ quality of life while they’re in our schools to improve, making sure that they want to be there and have pride in their school and feel welcomed and loved and valued,” she said.

While juggling full-time work and her children’s needs over the years, Williams found time to volunteer on parent teacher associations and advocacy groups such as Unapologetic Parents, a group of parents who are proponents of school choice.

She met Jasmine Morrison, a fellow parent and the group’s leader, on a school bus to Trenton. Morrison said they were heading to the state capital along with other group members to rally against a decision to block the expansion of some charter schools in Newark.

“Crystal has been instrumental in the group, whether it be for going to rallies or helping to run coat drives and book bag giveaways,” Morrison said in a recent interview. “She has so much energy and you see that energy in her interactions with her kids, and I think she’s going to bring that to the board.”

Board co-vice president Asia Norton said she looks forward to the fresh outlook Williams will bring to the board and its monthly committee meetings.

“Although she is new to politics, she’s not new to motherhood or to the workforce,” Norton said. “Ms. Williams exudes pride in being a mother and making sure that her children have everything that they need whether it be in the classroom or on the football field or applying to colleges. And I think she’s going to do the same for children across the district.”

Williams’ children range in ages from 3 to 23. Her oldest, Brooklyn, graduated from Rutgers-Newark in May 2020 and struggled with the switch to remote learning during that time. 

Her son Jayson, 16, did well with remote learning but had serious difficulties returning to school in person, she said. After considering several options, Williams transferred him to Leaders for Life Academy in the South Ward, a school that helps students earn a high school equivalency diploma. He graduated in December and now attends Universal Technical Institute, a trade school campus in Bloomfield.

“He took a different path,” Williams said. “I’m not going to make him fit into anything he’s not. Now, he comes home excited from school and makes money at his part-time job.”

With seven kids, Williams said, it becomes quickly apparent that all children learn differently and require different supports.

During a recent phone call as Williams drove her second oldest, Autumn, 17, to Temple University in Philadelphia for a campus visit, she shared some advice that she often gives her children.

“Sometimes, we have to detour and a detour is not necessarily a bad thing — you might find where you want to live along the way,” she said. “Sometimes a detour works in your favor. Keeping an open mind and a positive attitude is key.”

Williams said she never imagined running for any public office, especially because she doesn’t enjoy public speaking and would rather stay away from the limelight.

But after getting COVID early in the pandemic and seeing her children persevere through their struggles, she decided she didn’t want to “hide” anymore. When she was approached by other parent advocates and community members to run for the open Newark school board seat, she decided to go for it. Having guaranteed support from influential political players, including state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, and the money that comes with that backing, played an integral role in her successful campaign.

“I’ve never been on the board so I don’t know a lot of stuff and I’m going to look to my board members for help,” Williams said. “But I do know I want a better quality of life for the children, and I’m going to stand true to my promise.”

Catherine Carrera is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Newark, covering the city’s K-12 schools with a focus on English language learners. Contact Catherine at ccarrera@chalkbeat.org.

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