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Op-Ed: Why We Support the Newark South Ward Community Schools Initiative

Alliance for the Newark Public Schools has replaced the destructive corporate reforms imposed on us with a vision shared by groups and individuals

deborah smith gregory
Deborah Smith Gregory

From its inception, the Alliance for Newark Public Schools sought participation from every actively engaged organization in Newark dedicated to protecting our city’s public schools.

Eighteen Newark-based organizations sit at this table and have a shared vision for the future of Newark’s schools. These organizations joined the Alliance for Newark Public Schools in response to the urgent need to collectively exert the power and influence that will actualize change our students desperately deserve.

As organizers, we understood the need for a shared vision to replace the corporate reforms, which by 2012, had already begun to dismantle our public schools under the “One Newark” plan. In 2013, the Alliance mounted a large grassroots effort and engaged thousands of Newark residents in surveys, community meetings, public forums and town halls. The resulting vision was captured in the “Newark Promise Plan.”

The Newark Promise plan outlines priorities for Newark’s public schools, and calls for the creation of full-service community schools under the national community schools model. This plan, developed by a broad spectrum of stakeholders, created the basis for ongoing community engagement about the role of neighborhood schools in addressing the needs of children and families living in poverty. The “Newark Promise” is the community alternative to the “One Newark” plan.

Mayor Ras Baraka attended the public unveiling of the Newark Promise and endorsed the vision created by the people of Newark. Two complementary documents were developed under Mayor Baraka’s guidance by a broad spectrum of stakeholders; both his campaign “Blueprint for Education” and his transition team’s education plan align with the Newark Promise, call for community schools, and detail his outlook for a high level of cooperation between his office and all stakeholders in the Newark education community.

Had the Alliance not committed to organizing for community schools as our priority, the continuous onslaught of corporate reforms in the form of school closings, budget cuts, co-locations, charter school expansions, layoffs, and intimidation of students and education workers could have consumed us. We remained focused and engaged in countless conversations with educational experts and community leaders across the country who are fighting similar battles for public education. The successes of the community-schools model resonated over and over.

The reform-model data shows that community schools produce marked improvement in attendance, academic achievement, and graduation rates in communities with demographics similar to Newark, such as Baltimore and Cincinnati. We see the community-schools model implemented in the neighboring districts of Paterson and Orange, as well.

It was clear from the start of the Alliance’s conversations about community schools that the active support of Mayor Baraka was paramount. Newark’s state-controlled school district, with a hostile Cami Anderson as superintendent, had no possibility of implementing a community schools model. Under state control, the superintendent can veto any school board vote, and the superintendent can withhold district cooperation.

In the spring of 2015, Mayor Baraka took a leap of faith and announced that he would make sure that there were community schools in Newark for the 2016-2017 school year. He spoke of an initial five school plan. The path became clear with the support of the current Superintendent Chris Cerf for a South Ward community-schools initiative that was announced in December 2015.

What does this mean? Does it mean that we will immediately be able to implement the ideal full-service community-schools model? Does it mean that we will initially have all of the necessary resources? Does it mean that we have abandoned the fight for the return of the school district to local control? Does it mean that we have unequivocal trust in Superintendent Cerf in this process? No, no, no, and no.

What it does mean is that we are at the table, exerting the power and influence built by the thousands of students, parents, teachers, community leaders and faith leaders who took to the streets. What it means is the opportunity to save some children now, and even more in the future. We can’t sit back and wait for perfect conditions, because our children need services now.

Those of us involved in the movement for full service community schools will continue to voice our concerns collectively and work through any differences we may have. Our strength continues to be measured by this level of cooperation and commitment and the diversity of the individuals and organizations that represent the Newark community within the alliance.

We urge everyone who is interested in making full-service community schools a reality in Newark, to please get involved in the initiative. That’s how we ensure that the planning process results in a model that best meets the needs of our children and our community.

Deborah Smith Gregory is the co-chairperson of the Alliance for Newark Public Schools.

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