Newark Student Sit-In Ends With Superintendent Anderson Still in Place

John Mooney, Founding Editor | February 23, 2015 | Education
Students call action a ‘victory,’ even though state is on course to renew embattled school chief’s contract this week

Credit: Newark Students Union
Members of the Newark Students Union hold a sit-in outside the office of Newark Schools Superintendent Cami Anderson.
The four-day sit-in at Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson’s office last week grabbed the attention of local and international press, but whether the self-styled “occupation” made much of a difference is an open question.

Six students slept out for three nights in Anderson’s outer office. They made their exit Friday afternoon, after a face-to-face meeting with the superintendent.

According to a spokeswoman, the hour-long morning discussion included a commitment from the embattled superintendent for an “ongoing dialogue” with the students.

The students themselves — who prevented Anderson and about a half-dozen staff from working in her eighth-floor office — called the outcome a “victory.”

But the sit-in’s primary goal, at least the one most stated, was the resignation of Anderson as the state-appointed superintendent. Not only is the superintendent not resigning — at least not yet — but she is expected to be reappointed this week by Gov. Chris Christie for another year.

Her current contract calls for Anderson to be reappointed each year. The state must alert her of its decision for the coming school year by Sunday, March 1.

State Education Commissioner David Hespe said yesterday that her evaluation will continue into its final week, but gave clear signals that she was still in the administration’s favor.

“We continue to be pleased,” he said Sunday. “I thought there was a good opening for One Newark (reorganization plan), and she continues to work and make progress on a number of different fronts.”

When asked about the intense community and legislative criticism, especially about the One Newark plan that was implemented last fall, Hespe discounted the problems as nothing unexpected.

“She continues to make progress, and some of these things take time,” he said.

Still, renewing Anderson’s contract is likely to spur criticism and may incite continued protests. Last’s week’s sit-in was the most defiant student action to date, and among the most organized as well.

On Tuesday night, a handful of students from the Newark Students Union — which has become a vocal and well-known force in the city — had been attending the local advisory board’s monthly meeting on the 10th floor of the Newark schools’ downtown offices on Cedar Street.

But as they left, instead of taking the elevator all the way to the lobby, they stopped at the 8th floor and proceeded to Anderson’s executive offices, where they set up camp in the outer sitting room. (Anderson’s own office and an adjoining conference room were apparently locked.)

That touched off four dramatic days, with the stay followed hour by hour through Facebook and Twitter feeds and a prominent blog written by former Newark Star-Ledger columnist Bob Braun. An online fundraising drive raised more than $4,000, and even the Al Jazeera news service dispatched a reporter.

But that’s not even close to the attention that came from both the district, which provided 24-hour security, and from state officials, including Hespe.

“We certainly followed what was happening, but we also needed to make sure (the superintendent) had full flexibility to handle what was going on,” said Hespe yesterday when asked about the state’s role.

Still, the commissioner said he was briefed each day, and top department staff were on hand in Newark. “We followed it very closely,” Hespe said.

And certainly it galvanized support from some adults as well, along with some organizational backing.

Among those taking over the offices was Thais Marques, a Newark Student Union founder who has since graduated and now works as a community organizer for NJ Communities United, a coalition of public service unions and community leaders.

It was NJ Communities United that promoted the sit-in through email press advisories, including a “breaking news” alert that went out Tuesday night within minutes of the students entering the offices.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka held two press conferences stating his support for the students, and the Newark Teachers Union delivered $100 worth of McDonalds breakfasts the first morning.

John Abeigon, a top official of the teachers union, yesterday said the organization was not involved in the planning, but gave its full moral support once the sit-in was underway.

“We certainly supported it, but we didn’t know it was happening until it was underway,” he said yesterday. “They kept it pretty close to the vest.”

Abeigon called the move a clear success, even if the primary aim of Anderson’s departure had not been accomplished.

“I think they gave the governor and the commissioner cause for pause (in considering Anderson’s contract renewal),” Abeigon said yesterday. “I mean, does the governor really want more of this when he’s running for president?”

Anderson herself kept a low profile throughout, and did not comment further over the weekend. A spokesman reiterated a statement released on Friday.

“Since the demonstration began on Tuesday, NPS has taken steps to ensure that this group of six students has had access to water, food, bathrooms, and health services,” said the statement from Brittany Parmley, the district’s director of communications.

“After meeting with them and engaging in a productive dialogue this morning, the district is pleased to see this demonstration come to an end. We hope to see these six students join the nearly 40,000 other Newark public schools students in class on Monday.”