Trenton native takes an innovative approach towards educating students

Sheria Mcrae is a life-long educator who has spent more than a decade at Foundation Academy in Trenton. Recently, she has been named CEO of the school, and spoke with the Trenton Journal about her journey, philosophy, and hopes for the future of the charter school and the city of Trenton.

How does it feel to be named CEO of such a successful charter school?

I’ve been at Foundation [Academy] for 13 years. I started as a teacher, and from there, I [went from] Dean of Instruction, to a principal, to Chief Academic Officer, and now CEO. It has definitely been a full circle moment. I was one of those kids who had the attitude of, ‘I’m leaving Trenton and I’m never coming back.’ I really recognized and realized that attitude was part of the problem. I had the talents, and I had the strengths that I needed to come back and lend to my community, and that was most important for me. And now, being here and being CEO, parents whose children I taught as an educator have seen my start and rise [up] the ranks. They’re cheering me on, so it’s definitely exciting. It’s surreal, I don’t even think it’s sunk in yet. But I recognize the amount of responsibility, and I’m excited about taking on that responsibility and leading us forward.

Your comments about your previous mentality of leaving Trenton are very profound, and I know that’s a sentiment held by some students today. So, it says a lot for you to come back. You’re helping educate students in the town you grew up in.

I never thought about that, you know. Once you think about leaving, you’re definitely not thinking about coming back, and working or living [in Trenton]. But ultimately, I want that message to be sent to our scholars. We always say to them, ‘you have to come back, you need to come back. We need you to lend your talents, no matter what those talents are,’ or the community won’t change. If we don’t, it’s not about us giving them a quality education so they can go somewhere else and impact another community. It’s about them coming back and impacting their own. I’m not against exploration and living somewhere else, but the message we want to send is that you have to come back at some point and do what you can for your community. Education is the foundation to changing what we see in our community. It starts with our children. We have an opportunity to make a positive impact on them. To help them understand the impact they can make and the power they have to change their situation, not normalize it. We want them to be able to dream, and achieve, and do, and feel empowered. That’s what I felt when I came back, and what has led me to stay, work and live here for 13 years after I thought I would never come back.

As CEO, you have the ability to be creative in your approach to education. What ideas or policies do you plan on implementing?

I want the business of educating children to be looked at differently. We had a community forum on the weekend and the speaker, Dr. Joy Barnes, coined it perfectly. She talked about how the educational framework of schools should be a peace state, not a police state. You cannot have structures inside of schools that police kids, because if you think about what police are supposed to do, they’re really reactionary, right? There’s nothing preventative about the police. I think there are other measures that can be put in place to be proactive and preventative. We have brought in mental health professionals to really support students socially and emotionally so we can help the whole child. We have people that will support and provide them and their family with resources until they don’t need them anymore, which is what mental health support should do. We do not need to police children. We want this to feel like a safe space. [We have to] start putting some of these measures into place. [For instance],taking detention away, and thinking, 'What can we incorporate as a true learning experience for children?' Detentions are reactionary, they don’t show me data that proves they solve or teach kids anything. I want to take those things out of schools, and put in proactive measures, not reactive measures.

Can you tell us the positive aspects and challenges, if any, that you have experienced while teaching Trenton students?

One of the positives is that there are a lot of community groups and organizations that are trying to fulfill the purpose of helping kids and families in training. If there’s a need, there’s an opportunity for that need to be fulfilled when it comes to the kids. If a kid likes to play basketball, there's a basket, you know. There’s programming for basketball, baseball, softball, tennis, art, and skateboarding. There are those opportunities that, growing up, we didn’t have. Considering that everything that is put out there is consistently negative, we need to inundate that with the positives, because there are a lot of positive things happening in the city. [A challenge is], if kids and family have a certain fear, nobody’s really addressing that fear, right? If I take my kids to a community pool, will they be safe, no matter what time of day it is? I don’t think that people have the space or opportunity to voice those fears, and for someone to listen and take that information [in order to] do something to change it. People have real fears, you know, [regarding] shootings. Their kids, their family members, their friends are being shot and killed in the streets. How are those fears being addressed?

Exactly! How can students pay attention in school when you have those fears?

I think that’s being placed on us, as a school, which is fine. I think that it’s an opportunity for us. It’s now the business of the school to take care of that. I think there’s an opportunity to really hear kids, you know? When you go to forums, community town halls, who is often speaking and being represented? It’s not children. I think there’s an opportunity there to hear from students who are like, ‘I’m leaving and I’m never coming back.’ Why is that? What is leading kids to think this way? And who’s addressing this?

What is your hope for the school in the future?

I hope that myself and this school can show the possibilities. I can have all the ideas in the world, but after you have that idea, there’s a lot of people who have to help make that reality. And they have to believe in that idea in order to make it happen and ensure that it’s successful. So what I hope is that people see how quickly you can take something, and inspire confidence in people that moves them to action. If everyone develops that, they will get a lot better at what they do, and we will get a lot better, faster. With that, you will see a change here. You will no longer talk to students and hear them say they’re never coming back, because we’re constantly making change. We’re reimagining what education looks like, and we’re doing it here in training. We’ll be known for producing great people, because that’s what we do.

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