Spotlight Profile: Newark Student Leader Helps Organize Protest

Young Rutgers-bound activist among leaders of walkout over Christie’s school-funding proposals

Name: Thais Marques

Age: 18

School: Senior, Science Park High School

College plans: Rutgers University (accepted to both New Brunswick and Newark)

Career plans: Politics

Who is she? Marques was among the organizers of the midday walkout of an estimated 900 students from a half-dozen city high schools yesterday, protesting the Christie administration’s school-funding proposals and the budget shortfall in her district. According to the district, the largest contingent came from Science Park.

Her role: As one of the leaders of the fledgling Newark Student Union, Marques testified before the Assembly’s Budget Committee as it held the last of its public hearings at Rutgers Law School on Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed fiscal 2014 state budget.

Just one of the leaders: Marques stresses there is no leadership structure to the group, but probably a dozen or so organizers overall in the district’s high schools. “I am only one of many people who were behind this,” she said.

What got her involved: Born in Brazil and living in Newark’s Ironbound section since the age of 5, Marques said she was drawn in by the ongoing debates in the state over the funding of urban schools and state-operated Newark schools in particular. The Newark Students Union is only about a year old, she said, and this year, “some of us decided it was time to create an organization where we can stand up and open up a space where students can voice their concerns.”

Debate team: It helps that Marques is a member of Science Park’s policy debate team, where she has honed her skills at rhetoric, argument and rebuttal.

The argument: “The Christie budget disproportionately disadvantages urban communities and targets special needs kids, which includes English-learning students and low-income students. With that, we are losing a lot more money that we are supposed to.”

How does that affect Science Park? Marques cited the district’s planned cuts of more than 100 supervisors, prompted by a $50 million budget hole next year after the Christie administration announced level funding for the district. She said class sizes are also rising, and while Science Park’s programs are largely intact, she questioned if extracurricular or other extra programs in the larger comprehensive high schools will be as safe.

No complaints about her own education: “Personally, I have always gotten a really great education. I have been really lucky to have some of the best teachers who have really helped me get to a point where I am able to be articulate, politically conscious, and want to be involved in local and state politics. I owe a lot to the teachers I have had.”

Quality of Newark schools as whole: “Test scores don’t reflect a person’s intelligence and growth. The system unfairly judges us, and with that being said, we need to have a new lens on how we judge Newark’s children. Across the city, there are students really involved in their community.”

Reaction to those who criticize Newark schools: “There are definitely troubles in Newark, but it is more an issue of poverty. It is not the public school system, but rather we need to fix what is going on in homes. How can a child learn when they are hungry, if they have a resentment inside them? These are the things to work on, and supplemental programs like guidance counseling and lunch programs need the funding.”

On whether the protest was a success: Marques said the walkouts went pretty smoothly, although some reported that officials at individual schools sought to prevent students from leaving their buildings, claims the district administration flatly denied.

The district response: “We were not at all telling students not to participate, just to be careful and not walk into traffic,” said Renee Harper, a district spokeswoman.

Will students be punished for walkout? “There will be no disciplinary action whatsoever,” Harper said.

Was it worth it? “It was definitely worth it,” said Marques. “I really loved what we could do.”

Did it make a difference? “The (Assembly Budget Committee) chairman definitely tried to identify with us, but he didn’t quite say he’d fight for us,” Marques said. “We really don’t have any assurance to what will happen behind closed doors.”