THE JERSEY JOURNAL
Book focuses on teaching black youths
By Ken Thorbourne, Journal staff writer
Monday, July 12, 2004
Jersey City resident Baruti K. Kafele is doing his part to ameliorate what he describes as the educational crisis among African-American students, making progress one school, one seminar and one self-published book at a time.
Kafele, 43, principal of a notoriously tough middle school in East Orange, readily acknowledges that 95 percent of the suggestions he offers in his latest book, “A Handbook for Teachers of African American Children,” should be standard practice for teachers of students everywhere.
But in his 16 years as a teacher and principal, Kafele – who in 1996 was named Teacher of the Year in Essex County – says he’s found basics such as coming to class prepared, believing in students and goal setting to be sadly lacking among teachers of African-Americans.
“I know it’s not taking place,” said Kafele, whose first book, “A Black Parent’s Handbook to Educating Your Children,” was published in 1991. “There was a need for me to capture the attention of teachers of African-American children.”
At the core of Kafele’s message is the need for African American students to know who they are in terms of African history and where they fit in the continuum of the civil rights struggle in this country.
As principal of the Sojourner Truth Middle School in East Orange for three years – a school made up of 650 students, 99 percent of whom were African American – Kafele made Ancient Egypt and African American History I and II required courses. He also highlighted the contributions of African Americans in English, math and social studies classes.
By 2002, eighth-graders at the school achieved a 47 percent passing rate on the state’s standardized math test, a notable accomplishment since eighth-graders in districts with similar demographics normally register 20 percent passing rates, Kafele said.
“Without a sense of who they are, it is hard to educate them,” Kafele said. “No other group has gone through the dehumanization process of slavery . I put their learning in the context of a larger struggle.”
A 15-year resident of Jersey City, Kafele was born in Orange and raised in East Orange by parents who were school teachers.
He is married, has three children, and holds a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Kean University and a master’s degree in administration, curriculum, and instruction from New Jersey City University.
Last September, Kafele took over as principal of the Patrick Healy Middle School in East Orange, a school widely known for its problems with gangs.
“We don’t allow headbands, bandannas; pants have to be pulled up,” said Kafele, speaking about changes he’s instituted since taking control of the school. “Everything associated with gang paraphernalia we’ve been able to eradicate.”
Unfortunately, these changes came too late for the school to avoid placement on the state’s “persistently dangerous” schools list. The list relies on three years of data, prior to Kafele’s tenure as principal.
“My students have to wear that label,” said Kafele, who insists his school has made a turnaround. “It’s a real stigma.”
East Orange Schools Superintendent Laval Wilson credited Kafele with helping shape a new school culture.
“He’s done a good job of helping that school to improve and the young people have a good standard of conduct,” said Wilson. “It’s always helpful to find educators who are providing teaching or administrative support to African-American students.”