How Alternate Route Alumnus Jerell Blakeley Has Dedicated His Career to Supporting New Jersey Educators
As the youngest professional staff member of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), Jerell Blakeley has spent his entire life looking up to, working alongside, and, currently, lobbying for New Jersey educators.
“I love what I do,” Blakeley said. “It really is about making sure that educators are represented in the political process, and that educators have a voice when decisions are being made that affect the education profession.”
At NJEA, Blakeley serves as the Associate Director of Government Relations and is heavily involved in the New Jersey community through a role as the Vice Chairman of the Mercer County Board of Social Services, part-time lecturer at the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations, as well as serving his first term as a Trenton City Councilman-at-Large. As a Councilman, Jerell has served as a member of the Trenton Board of School Estimate and as the city council’s liaison to the Trenton Board of Education.
How education impacted Blakeley’s trajectory
Blakeley’s passion for education started early when he was a K-12 student at Trenton Public Schools and served as a student member of the Trenton Board of Education. His teachers, many who attended Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), fueled his curiosity for learning, which led to his acceptance at Howard University, an HBCU in Washington, D.C. While at Howard, Blakeley studied History and interned at the Department of Education for the White House Initiative on HBCUs and U.S. Assistant Secretary of Congressional and Legislative Affairs.
Blakeley returned to New Jersey with a focus on the education sector. He worked in the training unit at Educational Testing Services and began a master’s degree program in the Social and Philosophical Foundations of Education program at Rutgers, which he completed in 2014 as a Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics Graduate Fellow. He then realized it was time to pay forward his good fortune to benefit his community. That’s when Blakely returned to his high school to teach history and entered into the Rutgers Alternate Route program for his K-12 Teacher of Social Studies certification.
“It was a great experience,” Blakeley said of being part of Alternate Route. “It allowed me to juggle my career and get my certification. Without this program, I would never have earned my teacher certification. I appreciate the opportunity to go through the Alt Route program and I still keep in touch with the folks I matriculated with.”
During his time as a teacher, Blakeley built up his leadership skills through daily life in the classroom. Teachers are natural leaders, and Blakeley used his experience leading a classroom to expand his impact on the education sector.
“There are so many things you’re prepared to do once you have the experience as an educator,” Blakeley said. “A lot of people stay in the classroom and enjoy their time and they are lifelong teachers - I think that is to be commended. Then there are those who taught and decided to use their experience in the classroom to be lawyers, go to medical school, become elected officials – so many other things.”
How Blakeley Lobbies for Educators
In order to be an effective education lobbyist, Blakeley must deeply understand the challenges teachers face. He pulls from his own experience and relationships with educators to highlight which issues are most important.
“We want to make sure that their voice is included on the important issues – for example, that their healthcare remains fair,” Blakeley said. “Each year, teachers were getting paid less because of rising healthcare issues. This is a critical issue for teachers in New Jersey.”
The recent COVID-19 crisis has especially uncovered the hard work and challenges teachers go through every day. Blakeley says the pandemic has helped people who are homeschooling their children realize what life as a teacher is really like.
“Teachers are hard workers,” Blakeley said. “It can be fashionable in some circles to criticize teachers, but working with my colleagues at Trenton Public Schools, I saw their deep commitment to the young people and community of Trenton. I always think of those teachers and how they were difference-makers in the lives of so many people.”
How Blakeley Lobbies for Students
Blakeley recognizes that by offering more resources and support to teachers, students will greatly benefit, as well.
“My time in the classroom showed me that education is such a difference-maker. I saw students who were able to completely change the trajectory of their lives by pursuing education seriously.”
Raj Robinson was one of those students. A college senior studying biology at Bloomfield College, Robinson not only valued Blakeley as a teacher, but also as a mentor throughout her high school and college years.
“He really grew a personal connection with his students,” Robinson said. “Those who took his advice made out well.”
During Blakeley’s time as a teacher, he had a particular student who would stop into his office every day. He revealed to Blakeley the reason he visited daily is because he knows Blakeley will be there. He remembered the student telling him, “There aren’t many adults I can say that for. But I know that when I come here, you’ll be at the same place every time.”
It's those little moments that inspire Blakeley to fight for teachers and students in his multiple roles.
“Whenever I discuss policy, I rely on my experience in the classroom,” he said. “I think that being an educator teaches you so many things – patience, how to deal with different types of people, how to be empathetic, organized, compassionate – teaching gives you a real understanding of one of the most important civic institutions in our government: public schools.”
Even though Blakeley has stepped away from the classroom, he is still inspiring students with his impactful career.
“I like how he represents our town,” Robinson said. “He’s a great representation of Trenton and I see the change he is trying to make.”
If you’re interested in taking a lead in your community like Jerell Blakeley, visit the Rutgers Alternate Route website to learn more about the program. To keep up with more inspirational stories like this, be sure to follow Rutgers Alternate Route on Twitter for more information and stories from the education field and follow Blakeley on Twitter at @NJayBlake.