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Op-Ed: The Newark School Boycott Harmed Some of Our Students

The protesters’ concerns are legitimate, but their actions had an adverse, unintentional effect on some of the most vulnerable kids

reginald lewis
Reginald Lewis

During the first full week of the new school year, a group of local leaders called for a boycott of South Ward schools in protest to Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson’s “One Newark Plan.” One Newark is a system-wide school reorganization effort designed to give parents and students in every ward quality-school options within and beyond their neighborhood boundaries. Proponents of the boycott asserted that One Newark would be disruptive and unfairly target schools, and that the superintendent failed to listen to their concerns regarding the implementation of the plan.

There are clearly legitimate concerns about a plan on this scale in which nearly a quarter of the district’s schools are affected. Confusion about transportation logistics persists, and parents are understandably uneasy about the safety of their children traversing unfamiliar neighborhoods. However, contrary to claims that this protest tactic was devised in the best interest of South Ward students, the school boycott ultimately harmed a population of children who on average already miss too many days of school and lag tremendously behind their peers throughout the state in reading proficiency.

Only 25 percent of all South Ward students were proficient in language arts literacy during the 2013 academic year. Moreover, a number of South Ward schools struggle with the problem of chronic absenteeism, which is generally defined as missing 10 percent of class days each year.

The boycott only exacerbated this problem by legitimizing school absences. Further, as documented by the nationally recognized initiative “Attendance Works,” students placed on a path of chronic absenteeism are likely to have lower grade-point-averages, poorer performance on state tests, and lower high-school completion rates. At a time of the introduction of the more rigorous Common Core standards and assessments, how will students compelled to participate in the boycott make up for lost time?

Hunger is also a critical issue overlooked by boycott organizers. Over 88 percent of South Ward students qualify for the federally-funded breakfast and lunch program. The boycott effectively denied many children access to meals they so desperately depend on each school day.

Another perhaps unintended consequence of the boycott was the disruptive impact on families with limited options for quality childcare. A large percentage of South Ward households consist of single, working mothers. Moms juggling demanding work schedules were asked to manage the unanticipated need to find affordable, safe places for their children during school hours.

Individuals who disagree with the One Newark Plan have every right to voice concerns and register their protest to reforms directed by the Newark School District, including those involving charter-district partnerships. Yet other voices are equally significant, especially those of parents who have steadfastly (albeit less vocally) indicated their dissent with the status quo.

During the 2012-2013 school year, approximately 40 percent of South Ward parents applied for charter seats. Citywide, 10,000 families remain on charter waiting lists. These are parents who want the best-available options for their children. Sadly in Newark, the voices of such parents and caregivers are often drowned out by those of vociferous actors proclaiming an allegiance to children and public education. Conversely, the Newark district is also now viewed by many parents and local stakeholders as unyielding to recommendations for modifying elements of the One Newark Plan. In essence, we have reached a stalemate.

A meaningful dialogue among opposing parties is now in order. The beginning of a new school year should provide a fresh start to address concerns associated with One Newark. The Chad School Foundation stands ready and willing to facilitate a constructive conversation to resolve transportation, safety, and other challenges in the immediate future.

Disadvantaged students need every opportunity to be placed on a path to college and career readiness. Keeping children home can only result in impeding the growth and development of vulnerable students who already face multiple obstacles to acquiring the skills and habits needed to succeed in life. Let’s work together in what is truly the best interest of our children.

Reginald Lewis is the executive director of the Newark-based Chad School Foundation, an education policy and advocacy organization seeking to improve public schools and expand access to higher education.

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