When I was 14 years old, the principal of my school asked me a simple question that did not have a simple answer.

“Barbara, what’s your address?”

It wasn’t so simple because minutes earlier, I had been pulled out of class and told to collect my things from my locker and come to her office.

I recited the false address my mother had taught me to say.

Then a man I had never seen before who was standing next to her desk said: “That’s not your address. I followed you every day this week and I saw you get into your mother’s car in Newark and drive all the way over here. You live in Newark.”

The principal then said, “and you have stolen $3,500 of the Belleville school system’s education.” She said all I had to do was tell the truth and then she’d call my mother to pick me up.

I was terrified that my mother would be arrested for stealing.

My mother had lied about our address because she was worried that I would be unsafe in the Newark high school I was slated for. Though she spoke very little English, she had heard stories about violence at that school. So she did what thousands of desperate families do — she lied about our address, and broke the law.

A few days after I was kicked out of Belleville High School, I ended up in a Catholic high school in Newark that doesn’t exist anymore. It was safe, but it wasn’t rigorous. I don’t remember reading a single book in its entirety while I was there.

I got to college, but nearly flunked out. I had been a straight-A student in high school but was thoroughly unprepared for college. My suburban and white peers could talk about books and authors and philosophers that I had never heard of, much less read. I felt inferior. I felt dumb. I felt anxiety. And shame.

Somehow, I graduated from college, but that sense of inequity and injustice stayed with me for the past 30 years.

There is a reason so few low-income students ever get a college degree. The vast majority are like me — eager, curious, hungry. But even if we make it to college, only 15% of us graduate. That statistic isn’t a random feature of poverty, it is the byproduct of a legally enforced system of oppression. The fact is that intelligence doesn’t determine who succeeds in college and in life, lines on a map do.

This month, I became the executive director of the New Jersey Children’s Foundation, whose mission is to invest in people, programs and partnerships that will improve public education systems by putting the interests of children first.

The pandemic has left us with a learning loss crater that we must dig our way out of. But we have already seen that some schools are doing that work better than others, and we are committed to making sure we are focused intensely on helping all schools achieve the progress kids deserve.

My personal goal is to make sure no little girl or boy is limited and each has a chance to develop and create their own destiny and succeed in college, if that is truly what they want to do. But the children need everyone’s help and commitment.

Whatever your seat on the bus — whether you are a student, a parent, a teacher, a politician, a CEO, a philanthropist or an advocate — you have a role to play in demanding that all kids in New Jersey get what they rightfully deserve.

Because when good people do nothing, nothing changes.

I learned that lesson in 2011, in my final months as a reporter covering Newark public education for The Wall Street Journal.

One day I decided to call the domicile investigator of the Belleville school system. (It was not the same guy who caught me). As we were chatting about his job — of which he was so proud because he believed that he saved the district hundreds of thousands of dollars a year by helping to kick out kids — he asked me if I wanted to go out on a “stakeout” with him.

His word, not mine.

So the following week we were sitting in his car watching a little boy — a first grader — waiting outside of his Newark house to be picked up and driven less than a mile away over the border into a better school system. I knew what happened to me was about to happen to him.
Nearly 30 years had passed, but nothing had changed.

My editor wasn’t interested in the story since it was “old news.” Happens all the time, he shrugged.

So the story of that little boy was never written.

Now is the time to write a new story. In this story, a family doesn’t have to lie to get their child into a better school. In a city like Newark, where a number of schools, both charter and district alike, are already showing that a great education is possible, I see a path to a collective approach where different types of schools and organizations all over the city can work together toward our shared success.

This Op-Ed was published on September 21, 2023 in Mosaic. As of September 2023, Barbara Martinez is the new Executive Director of the New Jersey Children’s Foundation.