Roger León, the superintendent of Newark Public Schools, came to campus this summer to greet high school students in the Red Hawks Rising Teacher Academy, a nationally recognized program helping to build a locally grown, diverse teacher workforce in the city’s schools. Overwhelmed the moment he walked into the room, he explained that his tears were because of the significance of this partnership with Montclair and what it will accomplish.
Addressing the students, León recognized the first two who graduated from Newark high schools and are now college freshmen at Montclair. “They are living examples of what’s going to happen right in front of you,” he said, adding that, as part of the program, each graduated with a teacher contract to come back to work in 2026.
“The road just gets better, and the reason why it gets better is because you’re on it.”
Nurturing local talent is León’s passion, and the district’s partnership with Montclair and the American Federation of Teachers is being lauded as a national model for helping solve the chronic shortage of teachers for urban schools, especially teachers of color, and creating career opportunities for young people in Newark and a pipeline of teachers returning to teach in Newark.
It’s a path that León himself followed. The son of Cuban immigrants, León grew up in Newark and attended the city’s public schools, including his neighborhood elementary, Hawkins Street School, where he returned to teach fifth grade. At Science High School he was part of a championship debate team and later coached the team for eight years. He has spent more than 30 years working in the schools he is now in charge of reshaping.
León earned his Master of Arts in Administration and Supervision in 1996 from Montclair State University, an experience he says sharpened his focus for the purpose of public education and has led to significant partnerships with Montclair, creating teacher pipelines and coaching and mentoring for new educators.
“There is work that needs to be done to move us in an aggressive direction, and we’re making exerted efforts to do that,” he says. Many of the new teachers earning degrees in the partnerships with Montclair are like León, homegrown educators.
“You want to be able to tell a student, ‘I’ve walked these halls, I’ve sat in that classroom,’” says León, the first Latino to serve as the chief education officer of the largest school district in New Jersey. “Sometimes, especially in youth culture today, many students have a belief system that you can’t understand what they are going through. But you may have lived in the same projects or on the particular block that’s closest to the school, you may have played in the same playground. In Newark, our students, before they see anything of their teacher, they see their heart first.”
–Marilyn Joyce Lehren