Op-Ed: What Regaining Full Control of Schools Means for the People of Newark

Shanell Dunns | February 22, 2017 | Opinion
Students will be counting on us — the parents, residents, teachers, and leaders — to create a school environment that prepares them to succeed as adults

Shanell Dunns
Since 1995, the state of New Jersey has held full control of our local schools. The state has chosen our leaders, managed our school district, and drafted our school policies — leaving many residents who use the school system feeling voiceless in decision-making that impacts their very own neighborhood.

The announcement that full control will return to Newark through elected school board officials and the mayor’s office is a chance for us to have a say in the future of our students once again. The transition should be complete by the 2017-2018 school year and will give people invested in local school performance more open access to school district leadership.

Taking back local control of our schools is great news. It’s something Newark has been fighting to regain for years. But it also means the responsibility for improving the performance of our schools falls on our shoulders, and that’s a responsibility we can’t take lightly. Students are counting on us — the parents, residents, teachers, and leaders — to do what’s in our power to create a school environment that prepares them to succeed as adults.

The big question is — How? How are we going to initiate a transition that will benefit our students?

First, we must always focus on the quality and experience of the candidates we appoint to school administration. We need to choose leaders who have the right skills for the job at hand such as experience managing a billion dollar budget and engaging directly with the Newark community. We must also be open to shake-ups in leadership and willing to embrace new talent when necessary. Our current administration has discussed the importance of having qualified people sit on the board which is a sign that we’re moving forward in the right direction.

Next on the list is taking the time to develop teachers and to create an engaging curriculum to improve attendance and graduation rates. The purpose of our school system is to encourage graduation and usher students into college or careers. Although test scores over the past 21 years have increased slightly under state control, our schools still suffer from chronic absenteeism. When control returns to our hands, we need to pay close attention to factors causing students to become disengaged or unable to attend school.

Aside from leadership responsibilities, Newark residents and parents hold power during this transition as well. Your voices need to be heard. Instead of the transition happening to us, our thoughts and ideas need to be included in the planning process. If you’ve previously felt silenced, the transfer of administrative control is the call to get involved once again. This means voting, participating in discussions about local education, and promoting literacy in your neighborhood.

For support, parents and guardians should turn to their community organizations and political leadership for resources and guidance. Organizations like the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) advocate on behalf of families in Newark. Ultimately, the goal is to educate parents from underserved neighborhoods and show them the key elements of a proper education. During these discussions about high-quality education and school options, parents become equipped to make decisions on how to find a school that’s the best fit for their child.

On the legislative side, I’ve spoken with elected officials to help them understand how their policy decisions impact thousands of students and parents. Additionally, creating a space for constituents to be in the same room with and speak to elected officials is important so they can hear firsthand the community’s issues and concerns. At the end of the day, partnership between all stakeholders including advocates, parents, and leaders is what will make regaining full control of our schools a success.
Succeeding over the next year is crucial because the students are depending on us. Plus, we as a community have wanted to take back ownership of the school district’s direction for years. We’ve wanted real insiders with strong ties to the community and an understanding of our needs to have more input. And we’ve wanted to show the world that we’re capable of taking care of ourselves when given a chance.

Well, the chance to back up our words with actions has come, and it’s time for us to write history.