Leah Owens has dedicated her life to fighting for educational justice. As an educator, an activist, and an organizer, Leah is deeply committed to ensuring equal education for all children. According to her educational philosophy, equity plus justice equals equality.
In 2004, Leah began teaching English in the Newark Public Schools, where she stayed beyond her two year commitment to Teach for America and became immersed in the Newark community. She developed curriculum and after school programs, professional development presentations, and wrote grants. Leah’s teaching experience extends to adult learners. She served as an adjunct professor at Rutgers-Newark’s Urban Teacher Education Program and Essex County College’s Humanities Department.
Leah is currently employed as a community organizer for New Jersey Communities United where her focus is on improving the quality of early childhood education and access to affordable child care.
Leah’s organizational memberships include the Newark Branch NAACP and the Coalition for Newark Public Schools. She founded Teachers as Leaders in Newark, and she is a founding member of Newark Education Workers Caucus. Her organizing activities have included rallies and demonstrations focused on securing democratic public education and educational equity, particularly in New Jersey’s low-income communities.
Awards include the Advocacy in Teaching Award from the Abbott Leadership Institute and the Woman of Strength, Honor, and Service Award from Newark’s Circle of Sisters. Leah serves on the Advisory Board of the Urban Education and Teacher Unionism Policy Project at New Jersey City University.
Leah earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Duke University, a master’s degree in public administration from Rutgers University (emphasis on educational policy,) and New Jersey School Principal certification. She has studied, written about, and presented on the layers of education reform in urban areas—from the intimate details of the Abbott legacy to national and international trends in education reform.
Based on your qualifications and experience, what makes you a suitable candidate to serve on the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board?
I am a suitable candidate to serve on the Newark Public Schools Board of Education because I have the knowledge and skill set to determine effective education policy in addition to the commitment to secure justice for the children and families of Newark. I am a former educator in the Newark Public Schools District, so I know firsthand the challenges students and education workers face. As a teacher, I developed and implemented solutions. When I observed the Barringer auditorium full with students who arrived late to school, subsequently losing valuable learning time, I organized a group of teachers to rewrite the tardy policy so that students could still attend their first period class. I hold certification to be hired as a principal in New Jersey, so I understand a systems approach to strategic planning and budgeting. I am an activist and organizer in the community; I have been using my voice for nearly a decade to engage others in the social and political aspects of education.
What are your reasons for running?
I am running with the sole intent to strengthen the Newark Public Schools District so that it is governed democratically. These 21 years the District has been under state control have not put Newark Public Schools on a path to greatness. If public education is to serve as the great equalizer, then we must administer it from an equity-based frame. I am running so there is one more voice on the Board of Education who is committed to being an advocate for equity.
Are you running with an organizational slate? If so, please provide information about your platform.
I am running on the Newark Unity Slate with Kim Gaddy and Tave Padilla. We strongly advocate for full funding and resources for all schools, and increased graduation rates. Newark Public Schools has never received an adequate amount of state funding from this current administration. This is to the detriment of programs and instruction the students receive. The low rate of graduation is not a high school problem; we have to build our students up all along the way so that they are prepared to graduate when it is time.
What are your priorities for the district in the coming year?
My priorities for the District in the coming year are twofold. One priority is to ensure we have an action plan to pass all areas of QSAC. Another is to develop a team at each district school whose purpose is to carry out a needs assessment and then create a strategic plan for success. Each school-level plan will be directly inform the district-wide strategic plan.
What attributes and qualifications do you consider essential for effective school board members?
Attributes and qualifications I consider essential for effective school board members are active listening skills, sharp research and reading skills, commitment to public education, critical thinking skills, solutions-oriented, empathy, and a deep desire to see all children learn and be successful.