Opinion-The Historic Hard Reset for Newark Schools is an Opportunity

By Colin Hennessy Elliott

Newark’s students, the vast majority of whom are Black and Brown, traveled to and learned in physical buildings in September for the first time in over a year and half. This moment has significance for these students and their communities, who have endured uncertain learning opportunities and the trauma that comes from the disproportionate effect COVID-19 has had on communities of Color for a variety of systemic reasons. At the end of December, with the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 threatening to force schools to go remote again, I urge us to take stock in what this moment—this year, really—can be. Our schools have an opportunity to reset, reimagine, and remake the systems that serve students in classrooms and functionally support teachers.

What if we take this as an opportunity to not go back to “normal” but instead collectively work towards a better, more equitable, more justice-oriented normal? Newark schools, themselves an ongoing site of power struggle, are at the dawn of local control after 25 years of being state controlled. Learning from the history of this struggle, what would radical, community-oriented, changes look like for schools in Newark in this moment of rebirth from both a pandemic and being occupied by the state?

When I moved to Newark in 2011, Newark schools were national news. Mark Zuckerberg’s $100M gift—10% of the Newark Public Schools annual budget—led to a silent agreement between Mayor Corey Booker and Governor Chris Christie to radically disrupt the Newark’s school system by promoting the growth of charter schools. Years later, the public display of philanthropy, which grew to a $200M fund, was considered a widespread failure, as chronicled in Dale Rousekeff’s hard-hitting book, The Prize. Mayor Ras Baraka, who was principal of Central High School at the time, articulated that the foundation “parachuted in” and failed to make the level impact in the lives and achievement of students that one would expect from an infusion of $200M. Baraka explained that the fund did not do its due diligence in getting to know the local communities and organizations who would have made good partners in the work to improve schooling for the city.

Cami Anderson, the newly inaugurated superintendent at the time, and her approach best exemplifies what went wrong. Among many other reforms, her administration implemented a “school choice” influenced model which shifted the system away from a neighborhood school model that had students attend the schools closes to where they lived. The policy was part of a reform package named “One Newark” which also included closing multiple schools while state approved charter schools were opening rapidly. The details of the decision-making process embedded in this policy, including the sorting algorithm itself, were never released to the community, and schools had to openly compete to attract the highest rankings from students. Instead of a community-building approach, her administration—and the broader education reform movement—took to disruption tactics, something Anderson freely admitted to in a video from the time that celebrated her as Time’s 100 most influential people.

At this point in time, Newark Public Schools had been under state control for decades. The Newark community had little opportunity to oversee or have input on any changes to their systems of education. The lack of public accountability became so extreme that Superintendent Andersen felt no need to attend public board meetings—especially after frustrated community members shouted her down in a meeting where she announced multiple school closings. The school board itself functioned as no more than an advisory board that had little say in the decisions of the district besides approving the yearly budget. It had no power in hiring superintendents (who were appointed by the governor) or the closing of schools (which ultimately came from the superintendent).

This approach did not go unopposed, however. Members of the Newark Student Union entered Anderson’s office in 2015 and refused to leave until she either spoke to them in good faith or resigned. After four days, the superintendent met with the group. (Weeks later, the state education commissioner renewed her contract.) Later in that spring, students organized a mass district walkout in protest of Anderson’s reappointment, proposed cuts to the district budget, and the One Newark plan. Thanks to this valiant protest effort of the Newark Student Union and an increasing public sentiment against the One Newark plan, as well as charges that the plan was racist and discriminatory by the NAACP Newark chapter and many community members, a movement for the return of local control gained traction.

Such protests against Superintendent Anderson’s administration coincide with then-Principal Baraka’s run for mayor in 2014 and his first year as mayor. Baraka campaigned on a rebuke of the education reform styles that Booker, who himself had been elected as U.S. Senator, ushered into the city. Baraka publicly called for local control of the city’s school. Once elected mayor, he supported the occupying students, and stood by them on Broad Street when they marched on City Hall—a radical move that received surprisingly little media attention.

These efforts paid off. A year into Baraka’s mayoral term, the transition to local control was announced; Anderson was removed from the superintendency and replaced with Commissioner Christopher Cerf (the official who had appointed her in the first place). The school board then took over for a two-year transitional period, culminating in a complete transition and the appointment of the current superintendent Roger Leon.

Newark is no longer in the national education spotlight. Its public schools are now run by the elected board with actual power. While district school parents and communities can hold the board members accountable at the ballot box in school board elections and speak at monthly meetings, charter schools’ public accountability mechanisms are less clear despite the fact that 40% of the K-12 student population attending a charter school., Without an expressed policy, accountability rests with the charter school systems themselves—whether through charter management organization leaders or school leaders—to make room for community input. Some currently do, but if they don’t, these schools have little to no mechanisms for answer to city residents, outside a parent’s ability to choose another school in the school choice admissions process. Across district and charter schools, questions remain about what is on the horizon for education in Newark: how will the communities of Newark gain investment in their schools and hold the leaders accountable?

If anything, the past year has been a failure on that front for the district. The sad passing of school board member Tave Padilla caused an off-cycle opening on the board, whose filling by Vereliz Santana, a legislative aide, led to public backlash over the lack of public input. This, in turn, led to a coordinated effort from a group of community members to redefine the process, resulting in the board passing a new protocol for filling openings. At one point during the public backlash, board president Josephine Garcia was caught on a hot mic begrudging public participation, remarking “here comes the bullshit.” This led to calls for her to step down—which never happened. During the reorganization meeting in May, she was quietly not reelected as president of the board but stayed on as a board member to fulfill the last year of her three-year term.

Education is, no doubt, inherently political. Backlash across the nation against the Black Lives Matter movement and the ideological strawman of Critical Race Theory in schools just shows how fraught of a political struggle the control over schools is. Newark voters even asserted their control by overwhelmingly voting, at the urging of Mayor Baraka, to have an elected school board rather than a mayoral appointed board like New York City or Chicago. Every April the city holds a special election for three seats on the nine-member school board, with each term lasting three years. The last five elections have resulted in every candidate endorsed by the mayor and other local political officials winning a seat. This past April, the “Moving Schools Forward” slate, as they were dubbed, won three general seats and the fourth special seat to fill the remainder of Santana’s term. Communities of Newark need to consider what public participation even means in electing an unpaid community volunteer position, especially when under 7,000 people vote in these elections—barely 5% turnout—and where the candidates endorsed by the mayor and other local politicians consistently win with the policy stances of individual candidates barely known to the public. We need more people voting for these school board seats and community members (i.e. ,the organization Project Ready) are currently working on building voter turnout for school board elections which currently are on their own election day in April.

Does the current system bode well for the “hard reset” Newark Public Schools so desperately needs? Education systems function as inequitable sorting mechanisms, where grades and standardized test scores are often the single story told about learning in classrooms and schools. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns us of “the danger of a single story.” Newarkers must mind the dangers of the testing “single story” for our schools and our students, especially as we emerge out of the pandemic into a possibly new world in education. What other ways can we, as a Newark community, imagine assessing and addressing the needs of our students, especially after a possibly traumatic year of learning during a pandemic? I worry that narratives about learning loss will continue to force more focus on test scores by students, teachers, and administrators and limit other important facets to educating children like fostering creativity and wonder. This worry has borne true over the first few months of the school year as students across Newark have had to take a state test aimed to measure learning loss, called “Start Strong,” administered using the same system as the end of year tests which students will take again in April. I worry about what this says to students, centering standardized tests again once they are back in the building. And I question whether the resulting data will tell educators, students, or families anything they do not already know.

Newark schools need to focus on producing futures: individual futures, future generations, and future communities. It needs to support successful program like Principal Cook’s Lights On program at West Side High School, which imagines the role of the school building as an engager and developer of the community. It needs to continue to confront the digital divide and lack of adequate technological resources. Fundamentally, it needs to wonder what other issues of access and inequity the pandemic surfaced with respect to education and the imaginative solutions that can address those problems.

I had the opportunity to speak with some youth last spring and summer as part of my work with the volunteer organization IGNITE Greater Newark. Particularly, we had two discussions about what youth had learned by doing schooling remotely and what kinds of things we should learn as a school system from these experiences. One student spoke about really learning what it meant to be with her family more often, building relationships in different settings and for different reasons. Another spoke eloquently about how his experience showed him that remote learning was not for him. He continued that he did see a small portion of his peers, however, be much more successful learning remotely and therefore felt that it should be a legitimate option for students in a post-pandemic world (this kind of option is currently not possible with Governor Murphy’s ban on remote learning which started this fall). Finally, a Newark Public Schools alumnus and current student at Rowan University urged teachers and administrators to “start with care and compassion” this school year. Starting with care and compassion might mean setting aside the frenzied needs of focusing on achievement scores, which could pay off in re-investing more students in the communities of their schools and classrooms. Focusing on learning as a relational practice, rather than a means to an achievement measure, is more important than ever right now.

There needs to be more space, and time, to further imagine as communities what justice-oriented education can and should be for the children of Newark. But that requires a rethinking of the political culture and accountability with our school board. We are in an amazing moment of possibility for the city of Newark and Education: a distinct inflection point where we can enact new and different and expansive views of education. There have been moves towards equity, justice, and improvement but the institutional inertia remains steadfast to holding still. It needs a lot of pushes to really move towards equity and justice in the ways the various communities of Newark need. I urge all of us to consider the current inflection point as an opportunity to not go back to normal, but to imagine a more justice-oriented system of education in schools and beyond. And, as the recent history of struggles for local control teaches us, that starts with listening to, and learning from, young people.

About the author
Colin Hennessy Elliott, Ph.D has worked with youth in Newark since 2011, first as a physics teacher in Newark Public Schools before completing his doctorate in Science Education at New York University in 2020. He is currently a volunteer leader with IGNITE Greater Newark, which provides cultural excursions around the tri-state area for youth from the Greater Newark region free of charge, and an adjunct professor and full-time research associate in STEM Education.

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