By Christian Springer
Christina Akers has been teaching at Bridgeton High for almost ten years, and has seen firsthand why the school ranks 323rd out of New Jersey’s 399 high schools.
“I’m with the kids all day, in the classroom and lunchroom and in the halls. There’s a lot of good kids—don’t get me wrong—but there are a lot who make it bad for everyone else.”
Be it academic or behavioral challenges, many students would rather be somewhere else, doing something else, and many don’t receive support at home from parents and guardians. Ms. Akers is trying something, however, to make school just a little bit better.
Students living within a half mile of BHS have to walk to school per district policy, barring other accommodations. So, she and some other teachers got together to collect umbrellas.
“Students get themselves to school every day despite circumstances they can’t control. If there is one small thing we can do, like provide them with umbrellas on rainy days, hopefully they will continue to come and get their education,” said Akers.
But it’s more than ‘one small thing,’ as umbrellas aren’t all that teachers are collecting for needy students. Winter clothing is also on the radar of some big-hearted staff.
“We can tell if someone needs warm clothes, a jacket or gloves, and we make sure they don’t go without. And we’re quiet about it—they shouldn’t feel embarrassed and we want to help the kids who really need the help.”
When Ms. Akers mentions circumstances beyond students’ control, what they have to wear is often one of them. In a city whose poverty rate hovers around 15%, with some neighborhoods as high as 40-60% according to U.S. census data, it’s no wonder that BHS is tasked with providing more than just an education.
An organization dedicated to helping the poor is Gateway Community Action Partnership. Founded in 1987 and headed by Bridgeton Mayor Albert Kelly, it serves the Bridgeton and surrounding areas by providing access social services like USF (universal service fund), which helps poor residents pay for utilities. More than that, they are also taking on the task of ending chronic homelessness.
Another eyewitness to Bridgeton’s urban decay as seen through its high school is Kevin Quigley. Now in his 20th year at BHS, Mr. Quigley was there when the school graduated its last descendants of the Japanese Americans interned during WWII in the Seabrook area. This is to say: he’s seen the significant change in demographics that the school, and indeed the city, has undergone.
“Over the last five years I think a majority of the students are Hispanic, especially in the elementary schools where I guess they’re around 80-90%,” says Quigley who, as a full-time substitute, shuffles through the gamut of district buildings.
Demographics matter because they help tell the story of poverty. According the Wall Street Journal, Bridgeton has the highest concentrations of poverty south of Camden. These impoverished enclaves tend to be the homes of Mexican farm laborers, who work for very little.
This means a formidable number of students can’t speak English.
“And its horrible because they’re thrown into a new environment halfway through the school year, and you feel bad for them, you do, because they can’t understand what they’re being taught, they’re being forced along… ESL helps but I can tell it’s grueling,” Quigley said.
“But if I can bring an umbrellas or hats for someone who needs it, then I’ll do it, because that’s an easy fix,” Quigley continued
Despite the negatives, people are continuing to help. Whether it’s the work of the Gateway Community Acton partnership on the city and county level, or the work of Ms. Akers and her colleagues within BHS, it remains true that help is there.