Newark’s Students Speak Out On $100 Million Windfall

John Mooney | November 10, 2010 | Education
Instead of being told what to do, Newark's students are being canvassed on the best ways to put the Facebook gift to work

They came to Newark’s Central High School last night with their parents, teachers or just on their own. The task was to talk about their schools, part of an adult campaign centered on the district’s high-profile $100 million gift from Facebook’s founder to come up with solutions for the largest district in the state.

But as one recent University High School graduate noted, when the adults speak, it’s the kids who live with the consequences. Last night was their chance to speak up, with the grownups taking the notes.

There were probably about 100 kids in all, out of a total signup of over 300. Here are three of them.

Tajarae Crawford, 17, University High School

Tajarae was beyond nervous as the lights went down in Central’s auditorium, the chosen emcee for the first of 10 forums organized to gain input as to how the gift from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg should be used.

“This is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this,” she said.

But active in a community service group at University High School and an aspiring teacher herself, she was game to get the conversation going.

“A lot of kids fail to get involved, but they also fail to realize that we are the future, that this is our future,” she said.

Like the other students, she was familiar by now with all the attention that has come with the Zuckerberg gift, and had her own suggestions of what to fix. More elective classes, more afterschool programs.

“I’m in a classes of 30 kids, and that makes a difference,” Tajarae said. “My English class, my math class, biology, they all have 30 kids. And even with a longer period, how can a teacher get around to all of them individually?”

But she’s also not one to slam her school, citing the magnet high school with pride.

“To get here, you’re told you have to be the best of the best,” she said. And because of that, we feel we need to be the best.”

Casandra Garry, 21, YouthBuild Newark

Casandra’s experience is quite different from Tajarae’s. She confessed she didn’t make it to senior year at West Side High School. She didn’t say why, only that the school one day just “signed me out.”

“We are limited to certain types of education,” she said. “And once you are not doing what they want you to do, they put you out. So I needed to find my own way.”

The oldest of eight children – the youngest one-year old – she eventually found YouthBuild, a successful program for those between ages 16 and 24 who did not make it in Newark schools but still wanted a degree.

For Casandra, it will be a GED with the hopes of working in a hair salon. But what she has found at YouthBuild is the opportunity for her education, no small matter in a district that fails to graduate more than a third of its students.

“They make sure you are where you want to be, and not where they want you to be,” she said. “They should have more of that in Newark.”

She called the Zuckerberg gift “pretty cool” and said more programs and opportunities will always help. “But at the end of the day, it’s deeper than $100 million.”

In the meantime, she hasn’t given up her dreams of being an FBI agent.

“I figure maybe I’ll need to start little and work my way to that,” she said.

Jelani Butler, 15, Technology High School

Jelani’s mother is a volunteer with the campaign, known as Partnership for Education in Newark (PENewark), but he said he came on his own out of curiosity.

Sitting in the front row of one of the breakout sessions held last night, Jelani spoke about the power of guidance counselors who are honest with you about your options. He said peer pressure isn’t always a bad thing.

And he said Technology is living proof of the power of small schools. “I can name everyone in the school, nobody I don’t know pops up,” he said.

He said that closeness only fosters teamwork among students and teachers, sometimes in ways unique to Newark’s infamous challenges. One assignment for engineering credit was ways to fix the chronically leaking roof.

It’s not all rosy. “We’re Technology High School and we have the worst technology,” he said, adding that he hopes the Zuckerberg money will make it down to the kids themselves.

“I’m very hopeful, and not just for the $100 million,” he said. “I’m not fighting for me any more, it’s about the younger generation behind me who will get the education so they can excel.”