Irvington opens STEAM academy

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IRVINGTON, NJ — The Rita L. Owens STEAM Academy staff and community participated in a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new school on Sept. 15. The Irvington school is dedicated to and named after Rita L. Owens, a beloved art teacher in the Irvington School District for more than two decades. The academy is a satellite of Irvington High School.

Award-winning actor and rapper Queen Latifah helped to cut the ribbon at the ceremony dedicated to her late mother. On “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” on CBS she said, “This is a huge, huge thing for our family. My mother was an educator; she taught high school, but she also taught life, she taught love, she taught empowerment for children. She was an educator and we have to have a lot of respect for our educators. They do so much.”

A press release from the city read, “Ms. Owens taught in the Irvington School District for many years and was more than a teacher to the scholars she encountered. She was a mother, counselor, social worker and friend to the countless number of scholars and community members who had the opportunity to come across her path.”

Irvington Mayor Tony Vauss and Superintendent of Schools April Vauss did not respond to requests for comment. “This is the first STEAM academy in Irvington, New Jersey. This is really like the beginning of the future for these children who she loved so much,” Queen Latifah said, thanking the mayor and superintendent for making this school a possibility.

The press release for the event explained the school’s mission: “The Rita L. Owens STEAM Academy is dedicated to academic success through a rigorous and relevant curriculum that empowers students to become productive, responsible and self-directed learners and citizens. The curriculum is designed to meet the individual needs of all students through authentic assessment, research-based instruction and responsive differentiation that encourages students to think critically and to connect all learning to life beyond the classroom. Further, the curriculum is designed to explore big ideas, essential questions, and promote enduring understandings. Technology is also integrated throughout the curriculum to promote 21st-century thinking and learning. The curriculum is grounded in critical thinking skills to help students solve real-life complex problems and will deliver a high-quality, team-based learning experience for every scholar.”

Queen Latifah remembered her mother fondly during her interview with Colbert following the ribbon cutting, saying that her mother taught her to love.

“She’s the first person to love me so I learned how to love. And I learned that when we’re given things, we have to give back. I also learned to love hip-hop. My mother was a hip-hop (fan). I remember getting in her car one day and turning the radio on,” she said. “I was like, ‘Ma, whatcha doing with Leaders of the New School playing in your car?’ If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be here today. She was the class adviser so she would hire the DJs for the fundraisers. She introduced me to my first DJ that would become my producer, that helped me sign to Tommy Boy records.

“She used to go to the shows with me in the beginning,” Queen Latifah continued. “She was really involved in us growing up in hip-hop. She just really listened to the youth and stayed connected, so if it weren’t for her I wouldn’t be here.”

Owens died in 2018. At that time, Queen Latifah said in a statement to the media: “It is with a heavy heart that I share the news my mother, Rita Owens, passed away today. Anyone that has ever met her knows what a bright light she was on this earth. She was gentle but strong, sweet but sassy, worldly but pragmatic, a woman of great faith and certainly the love of my life. She had struggled with a heart condition for many years, and her battle is now over. I am heartbroken but know she is at peace.”

Queen Latifah signed the statement with her birth name, Dana Owens, and “forever Rita Owens’ daughter.”

Photos Courtesy of Tony Vauss