Students Say Record Protest Crowd Shows Strong Resistance to Superintendent’s Reforms

May 22, 2015 | Education
Nearly 2,000 participated in a student walkout in Newark.

By David Cruz

It was billed as the largest student protest in Newark Public Schools history. That’s a tough one to verify, but for many a seasoned observer today’s student walkout represented the strongest show of student solidarity in the state takeover era, more than 20 years now. They came from Weequahic and Shabazz, University and East Side highs — almost 2,000 in all — many defying a letter sent to parents warning that the protests were a “violation of our discipline code” and could result in “detention to suspension, as well as exclusion from celebratory end-of-year events.”

“Our school in general just basically told us that if we walk out we’re gonna get suspended, but we’re trying to save our school and we’re the future, so we all have to stick together when we come together for a good cause,” said one East Side High School student.

With scores of volunteers from the group New Jersey Communities United directing demonstrators and urging press to talk to official representatives only, the rally had the feel of a union-organized event.

One of the criticisms that has been levied against the movement is that it’s not so much student-led, as it is union-led, a mindset that doesn’t sit well with teacher’s union Vice President John Abeigon. “There’s no truth to that, whatsoever,” he said. “You know that’s an insult to this Newark Students Union. These are intelligent kids. These are a product of the Newark Public Schools. They’re aware of their American history. And they know that when you’ve tired of signing petitions, tired of representing down in Trenton and lobbying and legislating and nothing comes to pass and people continue to ignore you, well, your next step, rightfully, is to peacefully protest.”

“The Newark Students Union was organized by students for students because we’re not afraid,” said Jose Leonard, vice president of the Newark Students Union. “Teachers are tied by contracts, students aren’t so we have to use that freedom and our voice to bring to the table the truth of the matter and that is that our public education is being stolen away from us.”

This is just the latest chapter in the ongoing push and pull between a superintendent who — with support from the state education commissioner and the governor himself — is adamant about pushing through a reform agenda, while students, teachers and some staff reject that agenda with equal adamance.

A few blocks away, Cami Anderson was unavailable for comment today. Her spokesperson issued a statement: “While the District supports our students’ right to express their opinions and concerns,” it said, “we cannot support these actions when they disrupt the regular instructional day.”

Organizers insist the regular protests are having an impact.

“Since we have no democratic process with the Newark Public Schools it’s important for students to amplify their voices in any way they can,” said Roberto Cabanas, an organizer with NJ Communities United. “The impact is getting the story out because we know that Cami Anderson is going around the country saying that things are great in Newark. And if things were great, 2,000 students wouldn’t be on the steps of City Hall today.”

Students here say that if Cami Anderson is the immovable object then they are the irresistible force and these protests will continue until something, somehow, changes.