Public School Partnerships at Rutgers Camden: An Interview with Director Nyeema Watson

Posted by on December 14, 2012

By Nyeema Watson and Liz Shriver

Nyeema Watson is at the forefront of a new movement at Rutgers Camden.  On the third floor of 303 Cooper Street, a cozy house in the heart of the Rutgers Camden campus, Ms. Watson is located directly in the Office of the Chancellor. This co-location speaks to the deep dedication to school partnerships of this current administration. The message is clear: the success of the University and the success of the youth in the community surrounding it are directly connected. Under the leadership of Dr. Wendell Pritchett, an SRC member in the School District of Philadelphia in addition to his role as University Chancellor, Rutgers Camden is taking a stance on what it means for a public, higher education institution to truly support K-12 public schools…

Q: When Rutgers Camden was searching for a new president, were school and community partnerships a focus?

A: I sat on the search committee and we wanted someone who understood the value of a university being civically engaged. We were involved in the community through various centers and institutes on campus and had some faculty who were doing outreach and research in the city, and wanted our new campus leader to grow and sustain these efforts. Once Wendell came on board he wanted to give the civic engagement initiatives more attention, support and exposure then what was already happening. Specifically, he hired a director of civic engagement and one major goal was to provide more support for faculty to build service-learning courses, which would get more students involved in this work in a deeper way.  About six months into his tenure as Chancellor he launched the office of civic engagement and emphasized that we needed to use our human capital, our students, and our intellectual capital in a more robust way to support the community of Camden.

Q: What is your approach to the position of Director of School Partnerships?

A: I came from being the administrative director of the Center for Children and Childhood Studies (CCCS) and sitting on the Camden school board for three and a half years, so I have an understanding ofwhat the school board and district leadership are looking for in terms of partnerships.

It is invaluable to have someone at Rutgers who’s job is to smooth the path to getting things done and cut through red tape with the local K-12 schools. It is a challenge but by working together we (the school board, the superintendant, and school leaders) have been able to make a lot of progress. They know how I think and we trust each other. I can call the District and coordinate everything from short-term one-time events to professional development and long-term projects like Rutgers Future Scholars. I also know it’s also very important to build relationships with teachers, which are often longer lasting than relationships with district leaders. Though progress has been made there are still challenges getting access to schools. We’re here and we’re building relationships but we still have to navigate the day-to-day challenges that schools in Camden face. To address this we building strong relationships with each school that we work with from the principal, to the teachers. to the parents to get their support for our work. Additionally the Department of Education has a heavy hand in the district so I also work to help them understand how Rutgers Camden can support the educational needs and goals of the district.

Q: How do you go about assessing what is needed by on the district level and tailoring Rutgers programming to those needs?

A: We try to understand what the big initiatives are and align our goals with what they’re doing.

We work with 3 schools in North Camden through a 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant from the New Jersey Department of Education which has allowed us to develop comprehensive afterschool programs in the three schools. We’re running these after-school programs at each school every day until 6, and we also recognize we have to provide resources for the parents. So within this programming, we also support the family and build the partnerships that will connect families to resources in the community.

The coordinator that we have, Rosa Quintana, is the direct liaison between Rutgers and those three schools. Not just in making sure that this after-school program is there for kids but in strategizing how can we support the school in other ways, and how can we serve as a coordinator for them to engage other partners.

We’ve gotten a lot of support from the principals of the three schools we currently serve most directly. Last year when we started working with the schools we brought in Rutgers students from the creative writing program into the classrooms during the school day.  After the success in one class, the principal at one school said, “we want this in every 2nd and 3rd grade class.” This year the principal has added the Rutgers writing class into the daily schedule of all of the students. This showed us the value of our working together and has intensified our relationship, especially with the teachers. The teachers have helped us to not only do creative writing with students but to collaborate and address other skills that students need to learn and now we are working on how to better embed the support the teachers need in to what we’re doing.

Q: Do you think these kinds of partnerships can expand to other departments?

A: Yes, with guidance and training. We have a lot of faculty that have the desire to work with youth and we work with them to either find schools or organizations to partner with or help them to create new programs. For example, we have a fantastic relationship with our Rutgers Camden School of Law. They collaborate with NJ LEEP to create a mock trial and moot court program for high school students in the city and it has expanded significantly since we began working with them five years ago. We are excited to use the expertise of the faculty to create new and exciting opportunities for youth in Camden.

Q: In Philadelphia we face particular challenges in connecting on the District level. How do you work on this issue in Camden?

A: When the Chancellor was in his first year we really pushed the district leadership on needing someone to be in a partnerships coordinator role. After about a year the Superintendent created the Coordinator of Innovative Partnerships. I have built an extremely close relationship with the coordinator to strengthen and expand partnerships with the Camden Public Schools. Now she is my “go to” person, we meet bi-weekly, she’s been there since the Spring and she’s so amazing. Her main focus issues are college access and K-12 alignment. That’s her larger vision and we are thinking through how we can help make that happen.

Q: Do you see college access for Camden students as a direct pipeline to Rutgers?

A: In a sense yes, but our larger goal is to assist all Camden students to gain access to higher education. We have a college access program like the Rutgers Future Scholars program which does give students a tuition scholarship to Rutgers if they graduate from high school and are admitted to Rutgers University. However, we encourage students in Rutgers Future Scholars and other students we work with through our Hill Center for College Access,  Overall all of our public school partnership initiatives involve exposing students to Rutgers University and what institutions of higher education have to offer and helping them understand the path they must follow in order to attend and be successful.

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