Op-Ed: Newark Demands Quality Schools, Return to Democratic Process

Lauren Wells | June 3, 2015 | Opinion
State control abrogates rights of students and citizens, hasn’t improved schools, and ignores wishes of the community

Lauren Wells
In the span of one week, two major education protests took place in Newark, one by teachers and another by students.

In the largest, thousands of students walked out of every Newark high school, converging on the steps of City Hall and eventually taking over an intersection, blocking access to the New Jersey Turnpike and other major highways.

These protests, which have escalated over the last two years, are directed at the state’s refusal to return local control to the Newark Public Schools as well as the strategies being used by the state-appointed superintendent to dismantle the Newark Public School District.

As the chief education officer to the mayor of New Jersey’s largest city, I interact daily with parents, educators and students who want more than the broken promises of the state and failed educational strategies.
Several weeks ago, Newark parent “Marge” came to my office seeking help. Last year, her son, “Mark,” who was an eighth-grader at a district K-8 school, was required to participate in One Newark Universal Enrollment (One Newark), the controversial enrollment plan introduced last year. After selecting eight schools, Mark was assigned to a charter school, Apple Academy. This year, Mark has been suspended from Apple Academy for at least one day of every month since school began in September, and was recently expelled.

Mark is a special-education student with an individualized education plan (IEP) requiring specific services. His recent IEP states “Student is unable to thrive in current setting due to Apple Academy not having the placement recommendation from the prior school. While Apple Academy has made effort, most of the supports that the student requires are not attainable in the student’s current setting.”

Marge sincerely believed Apple Academy was a choice that would provide Mark the best education possible. However, One Newark placed Mark in a school unable to support him, causing Mark to lose valuable learning time and violating his rights.

Thousands of students are, like Mark, losing ground because of another failed strategy called Renew Schools. Reports issued by the Alliance for Newark Public Schools show that after two years “Renew Schools pass rates are lower than they were prior to becoming Renew Schools” in 13 out of 16 areas. Renew Schools also missed all 56 targets set by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) waiver.
Yet the state continues to deny these schools and other “priority” and “focus” schools in Newark support from Regional Assistance Centers (RACs), which the federal NCLB waiver granted to the state in 2012 requires.

These reforms have caused other problems all across the district.

Since 2011, there has been 60 percent turnover of principals across the district. Some schools, including Weequahic, Barringer and West Side high schools, and 13th Avenue Elementary School, have had multiple principals.

All of the 12 alternative-education programs that existed in 2012 to reconnect 3,800 youth who have left school to academic programs have been eliminated.

A total 271 employees without placement cost the district over $22 million, while the district’s deficit is ballooning.

Mark’s story, the Renew Schools’ abysmal results, and these problems make it very clear that state control of Newark’s schools is out-of-control.

State control, intended to improve educational outcomes for children in districts in need of external support, has become an instrument for the disenfranchisement of the largest number of black and Latino citizens in New Jersey.

The citizens of Newark want high standards, multiple assessments, transparency, and collaboration. They want to send their children to neighborhood schools that leverage the resources of their city and gifts of their communities. They want to exercise their right to choose these things.

Our students deserve schools, interventions, and reform supported by consistent and validated research, and not reckless experimentation.

Community Schools, based on research about the impacts of poverty on students and learning and research about school improvement, would greatly improve our schools. Community Schools focus on academics, health and social services, social and emotional development, and community development to simultaneously increase achievement and strengthen families and communities.

There are examples of the impact of Community Schools in New York, Cincinnati, Lancaster, and our neighboring state-operated district, Paterson.

Using state control of a school district to ignore federal laws tied to federal dollars, and to circumvent local and state regulations, is an abuse of power. To do so in the city with the largest number of black and Latino students in the state of New Jersey is a violation of rights guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

The district needs a new and immediate course, a course that ends state control and ushers in era of evidence-based school reform that accelerates learning for all students.

So-called education reformers liken themselves to leaders of the civil rights movement. Civil rights activists who demanded the end of segregation in schools and died to register black people to vote were not in pursuit of one right or the other. They were not seeking what amounts to a false choice.

Neither is Newark. The citizens of Newark are entitled to quality schools and full participation in the democratic process governing their schools. This is the real promise of the civil rights movement.

Now is not the time to compromise.

The nation is watching to see whether or not the state of New Jersey delivers. So is Newark. So is Mark.