Junius Williams

This article was previously published in Connect, Winter 2014

A graduate of Amherst College and Yale Law School, he has worked in, and for, Newark for four decades, and his new memoir, Unfinished Agenda, Urban Politics in the Era of Black Power (North Atlantic Books, 2014), has been described as a “road map for addressing poverty, failing schools and crime.”

For many years, Williams’ chief cause has been improving K-12 education for Newark students. That was his role as founder and now retired executive director of Rutgers’ Abbott Leadership Institute (ALI). Its goal: to teach parents and community members how to make public schools better by taking an active role in their schools and their children’s education.

To understand this cause, start with Williams’ parents, who were both educators with a fierce passion for learning. Both promoted the power of knowledge as a way to change lives and believed in taking a hands-on approach to their son’s education. Junius Williams is very much his parents’ son. He founded ALI approximately 16 years ago to provide Newark parents, students, educators and community with the skills and tools to improve the Newark public school system. “I wanted to create a university for parents, to empower them to use information and analysis to become active stakeholders in their schools,” he explains. “What sets highly successful schools apart from the non-successful is the strength and quality of parental engagement.”

But parents need to understand what questions to ask, and what issues are important – such as testing, class size, how funds are being spent, and the role of pre-school, says Williams. This is where ALI comes in, offering workshops, seminars, and field trips to study high-performing schools, and to explain these issues, as well as the end impact of the state’s role in Newark, where schools are under state control. Workshop topics include analyzing school rankings, navigating the school system, understanding the court rulings and laws that impact public education, and more.

Some ALI programs target Newark teachers, helping them develop their classroom skills and to learn to work effectively with parents.

ALI also develops students through the Youth Media Symposium, helping them become effective advocates by teaching them public speaking, video production, leadership and writing skills. “Students used to be told to be quiet and just take tests. We are producing students who are smart and not so quiet,” notes Williams.

ALI programs have helped more than 2,700 persons become enlightened advocates for their children, Williams notes. “These people get respect because they’re informed, not just emotional.”

Learn more about ALI at http://www. abbottleadership.org/

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