What is it like to be black in a school district like Hamilton?
Often enough, said Charisse Smith, the answer is lonely. There’s not necessarily a lot of company.
“An African-American student might not find an African-American adult in the building,” Smith said.
Smith is the president of Excellence Through Education, a nonprofit with the mission to “affirm and uplift African-American and black students” in the Hamilton Township School District. The organization has existed since the 1970s to give students of color a boost.
“It’s about letting them see that there are people who look like them and to celebrate academic excellence,” she said.
The benefit to students, Smith said, is to provide them with a view “through our lens,” culturally; a means of promoting inclusiveness, and to address the cultural needs black students might have.
According to state data, the Hamilton Township School District student body was 48 percent white, 27 percent Hispanic and 18 percent black during the 2016-17 school year. Smith said, as such, black students are often not connected with others across all the district’s schools. And there is a lot to be said for just being around people who look like you, who share your experiences, and have similar paths in life.
For the record, ETE does have members who aren’t black. Smith said the point is not about separation. It is about, as the ETE website states, “personal growth, citizenship, and community involvement of minority students of African-American heritage within our district.”
To achieve that goal, this month, in observation of Black History Month, ETE will hold a book fair at Barnes and Noble in the Hamilton Marketplace that features local black authors. The Saturday, Feb. 9 event runs from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m., with speakers Donna Clovis (11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.), Shirley Hailstock (1-2 p.m.) and Azuka Zuke (2-3 p.m.).
Every June, the organization throws the ETE Awards Ceremony, which gives merit awards to students who show qualities like “outstanding citizenship” or “academic excellence” or “outstanding contribution to the school.” It also provides scholarships for district high school students to go to college.
‘When I walk into a building with my badge on and the black students see me, it’s amazing to see the connection.’
Amid the celebrations of academic and community achievement, though, ETE is also built to give black teachers and administrators a place to connect. As lonely as it might get for students, Smith said, it can be a lot lonelier for black faculty and staff. What she said about a student not being able to find a black adult holds true for teachers and staff, too.
“A lot of networking and a lot of collegial bonding needs to happen in the district,” she said.
She said black faculty and staff members who don’t have colleagues of color around are often simply unable to share important cultural aspects of being black—something as simple as a conversation about Thanksgiving dinner, for instance.
One of the casualties of the cultural loneliness that a lot of black teachers and staff feel, Smith said, is that they tend to move in and out of districts where there are fewer black colleagues. So ETE works to keep black faculty and staff members connected in order to help retention in the district.
While Smith isn’t sure how many black teachers, staff members, or students are spread across Hamilton’s 23 schools, she does know the numbers fluctuate. That’s a concern to her because, she said, teacher and faculty retention are important to building a thriving community within the community. And the stronger that community, the easier it will be to recruit and retain the best black teachers and staff, who, in turn, could better help students get the most out of school.
Smith said she tries to recruit “from all over” to get more black teachers interested in working in Hamilton. She herself was recruited from the Trenton Public School District in 2008, as an elementary teacher. She joined ETE three years ago and became president in 2017, mainly because someone needed to make sure the organization continued, she said.
ETE was founded in the mid-1970s. And while it’s always been an entity in Hamilton, the original founders had mostly moved on or retired by 2015. There are 15 active members of the group, Smith said, and a lot of them are retired teachers or administrators—which means she is trying to recruit new members all the time.
Smith still lives in Trenton and learned a lot about how important it is to have good teachers early on. Her mother worked for the state, in student loans, but “was very progressive in her approach to education,” she said.
Smith described herself as a “transient student” because she attended numerous public and private schools. This, she said, was her mother’s doing, because “where she saw good teaching, that’s where she put me.” Moving around a lot helped her understand what does and doesn’t work, too.
“I think that’s where I get my acceptance of change,” she said.
It also taught her to be tenacious. When she wants something to work, she works to make sure it happens, she said. Smith earned her bachelor’s in psychology from Rutgers in 1989 and worked through to a doctorate in education from Capella University in 2015.
She hasn’t always been a teacher, but she has pretty much always worked with children. In the 1990s, she was a mental health specialist working with children at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Piscataway, supervising a team of mental health specialists in children’s transitional residence. By 2001, she’d moved on to be the executive director of Children’s Playhouse in Ewing.
Outside of the district, Smith still works mainly with children and in education. Since 2007, she’s been a coordinator at REAL Men of Hamilton, helping mentors reach at-risk youth in schools. In Hamilton, when she isn’t putting together meetings and events for ETE, she is a Title I instructional literacy and math coach. That means she assists teachers at Kuser, Klockner and Kisthardt elementary schools with their programs.
So it’s safe to say Smith knows how to keep groups of people motivated. She hopes to turn her wide connections in and around Mercer County into more recruitment opportunities for black teachers and staff in Hamilton so that they may help students of color find the right path through school and into the bright futures people always want for their kids.
Smith is, nevertheless, encouraged that there have recently been more black colleagues hired in the school district—namely Earl Tankard, LaShawn Gibson, and Nicole Dickens-Simon, principal of Kisthardt, Klockner, and Greenwood Elementary School, respectively.
She’s also glad to see attendance at ETE meetings going steadily, even if some of the newer administrators have trouble making the meetings because they happen after school, when administrators tend to be busy.
In return, she said, her ETE colleagues tell her how grateful they are to have a group paying attention to the issue of African-American culture. They feel less isolated and much more “culturally comfortable,” she said—something she wished she had had when she joined the district a decade ago.
“I had another colleague who helped me navigate through,” Smith said. “If it wasn’t for her, I’m not sure I’d have stayed.”
To be clear, Smith isn’t saying she ran up against any kind of institutional racism or anything of the sort. She just felt alone, with almost no one else of color around her in the district.
And in addition to helping provide a means for black educators to feel a little more at ease, Smith said she hopes to inspire the younger educators to take up her mantle. It’s not necessarily easy, she admitted, but it is usually rewarding.
“That is a heavy burden to carry,” she said. “But let me tell you, when I walk into a building with my badge on and the black students see me, it’s amazing to see the connection. They say, ‘Oh, there is someone here who looks like me, I’m glad to see you.’ That trumps it all.”