Supporters Put Up Big Fight to Save Small School

Reflecting a national debate, two planned closures in Newark pit parents, staff and advocates against Christie administration

roseville fence
Just walk into the tiny front entrance of the Roseville Avenue Elementary School in Newark, and it’s apparent why the school is slated for closure.

Even beyond the fact that the building is 130 years old, there are fewer than 200 students, there is no gym or auditorium, and the cafeteria is barely the size of a small meeting room.

But just walk into Roseville Avenue Elementary School, and talk to teachers and parents, and it also becomes clear why they are fighting back in what has become a growing debate in New Jersey and elsewhere over the closing of urban schools.

The words “caring” and “family” come up a lot at Roseville. So does mistrust of state schools Superintendent Cami Anderson and the governor who appointed her, Chris Christie.

Even the recent installation of new wi-fi in the school building sparked rumors that the school was only being sold off to a charter school, something the district flatly denies.

“They won’t fix our windows that won’t open, and they put in wi-fi for a charter school?” said one teacher, who like others wouldn’t give her name for fear of retaliation.

A district spokeswoman said wi-fi was being installed in every school this year, part of a new outside-funded program.

Nonetheless, the teacher’s reaction speaks to continuing tension over planned school closures in New Jersey’s largest city.

About 100 people – many of them teachers, but also parents, education advocates and more than one Newark politician – turned out yesterday at the school for an outdoor protest over the closing of schools by Anderson and the Christie administration.

On top of a half-dozen schools closed this year, Roseville is one of two in Newark being closed next year, along with the Samuel Berliner School, whose teachers also attended yesterday’s protest.

Other school closings are also planned in New Jersey in Camden and Paterson, two other state-run districts, as well as nationwide in cities including Chicago and Philadelphia — more than 30 Philadelphia schools are slated for closure.

Anderson and the administration maintain that closing of the two Newark schools reflects the difficult economics facing the district, with enrollment dropping with the rise of charter schools and the district facing a $56 million deficit in its nearly $1 billion budget for next year.

It’s not only that the Roseville building is ancient and the enrollment is small. Anderson has noted that school’s principal was retiring, and the school had shown lackluster student-achievement growth, if any at all. Last year, just 50 percent of students met state proficiency standards in language arts and math, a 20-point drop from the year before.

Also looming over the school is a state investigation into possible cheating on the state’s tests, a probe encompassing eight city schools including Roseville.

Still, the teachers and parents who gathered yesterday were ready to refute each argument, if not dismiss them altogether.

They said Principal Rose Serra – with 13 years at the school and nearly 50 in the district – has told the school community that she has no intention of retiring, no matter what the district says. Serra attended the event yesterday but would not comment.

And in a school where nine in 10 students get subsidized meals due to low income, they said the school has shown growth in achievement. They acknowledged the one-year drop last year but pointed out that Roseville was one of the state’s so-called Reward Schools only two years ago.

Advocates also assert that the district’s enrollment numbers are higher than reported, and they say the circa-1883 building was given a clean bill of health recently by the district’s own facilities office.

As for the cheating investigation, they said the school and its teachers have cooperated with the investigators and have nothing to hide.

“We’ve given them everything they’ve asked for,” one teacher said, also asking that her name be withheld.

Nonetheless, the passion for the school comes more in the comments from parents who said they wonder what will happen without Roseville. The plan is to move students to two K-8 schools, but parents said they like the safety of the small K-4 school.

Safety is an especially resonant point in the district after last week, when one student was shot and killed outside a high school and another school went into lockdown when three teenagers ran into the main office to get away from police.

Take away Roseville, and “my daughter doesn’t get the same friends she has made, she doesn’t have the same relationships with teachers,” said Lauren Melton, mother of a first-grader and head of the Roseville PTO.

The school has also won some boosters from maybe an unlikely place — a Montclair private school. The Montclair Kimberly Academy, a prestigious independent school, has had a partnership with Roseville for several years and has provided student tutors and other support over that time.

One of its parent volunteers wrote an email recently to state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, a big Anderson backer, to plea for his help in sparing the school. She said the school offered its students an important opportunity.

“From the moment those [MKA] ‘tutors’ walked through the door of Roseville,” wrote Jessica Drury, coordinator of MKA’s outreach program, “they saw a program determined to give each child a chance to move forward not just educationally but emotionally, intellectually and with unwavering support.”

“I have wrestled with the reasoning that would displace students from a successful program to a failing one, and have yet to arrive at an understanding that could serve as a justification for such a decision,” she wrote.