When it comes to its schools, not much has come easy to the Hawthorne Avenue neighborhood on the edge of Newark’s South Ward.
A decade ago an entire block of homes running between Dewey and Demarest streets were bought out and bulldozed for a new high school promised by the state.
But the school was never built. The state’s school construction program ground to a standstill. And the only shovels in the ground are in the community garden now being planted on what was to be a new school property.
Now, the flagship Hawthorne Avenue School is at the center of the fight sparked off by state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson’s reorganization of New Jersey’s largest district.
Anderson originally plan to turn Hawthorne Avenue over to two outside organizations, BRICK Academy and the KIPP charter network, as part of her “One Newark” plan.
Anderson has since backed off on some of the details, instead saying Hawthorne Avenue would remain a district school, just under outside management.
Either way, a third of its students are to be moved elsewhere, and with enrollment decisions due to be announced within the week, the change for the school continues to blow back on Anderson in increasingly public ways.
Yesterday, the extra attention came by way of the Randi Weingarten, the national president of the American Federation of Teachers, visiting the school to voice her support for it remaining as it is.
Identifying Anderson as part of a nationwide reform movement of “privatizers” and “profiteers,” Weingarten said Hawthorne was an example of the superintendent’s plans gone awry.
“They don’t want schools doing well the old-fashioned way,” she said. “They are so craven here that instead of celebrating the success, and instead of seeing what is growing and nurturing that, why would you stop that?”
Weingarten then moved down to City Hall, where she stumped for City Councilman Ras Baraka in his bid for mayor in the next Tuesday’s election, an election that has increasingly become an open call on Anderson’s tenure.
Baraka, the principal of the district’s Central High School, has been among Anderson’s chief critics, but his challenger, Seton Hall Law professor Shavar Jeffries, has been openly critical of pieces of Anderson’s reform plans as well.
At the heart of the debate over Hawthorne Avenue has been a simple question: why target the school at all?
For a citywide debate that has typically centered on the Newark’s most-struggling schools, Hawthorne Avenue is actually among those making the biggest strides. Its student growth as measured by the state Department of Education -- tracking individual children against their peers -- placed Hawthorne not just among the highest in the city but in all of New Jersey.
That’s not to say it is a high-achiever; only half of its students passed the state’s math test and a third its language arts tests last year. But over the past three years in a neighborhood among the poorest in the city, even Anderson’s own measurement rubric has listed the school as being “on the move.”
When repeatedly asked over the past two months for its rationale for turning the school over to BRICK and KIPP at all, Anderson’s staff has yet to come back with an answer.
A subtext to the debate has been the role of the principal, H. Grady James. Teachers and families credit him for the improvements, but he has been openly at odds with Anderson. James was one of five principals who Anderson suspended this year over his public protests and defiance of the One Newark plan.
Yesterday, Anderson’s press secretary, Chanelle Figueroa, issued a statement that Anderson had heeded the community’s wishes in scaling back her initial plans, and chided Weingarten for her open involvement in Baraka’s campaign.
"We are surprised by Ms. Weingarten's visit today, especially in the midst of student testing this week and the mayoral election next week,” read the statement.
“As a result of extensive family and community engagement at the school, we long ago decided to keep Hawthorne open as a Newark Public School and partner with KIPP to fix the facility,” it read. “To ensure Newark has 100 excellent schools, we need sensible solutions that are in the best interest of our students, their families and the district, like this one."
The school meanwhile has been left in limbo to what exactly will happen next, with even the leaders of both KIPP and BRICK expressing some uncertainty yesterday as to the building’s eventual fate.
Ryan Hill, the executive director of KIPP’s TEAM Academy charter schools, said TEAM would only operate a small K-1 school in Hawthorne’s adjoining classroom trailers – and only for a year.
“No takeover of any sort involving us at Hawthorne,” Hill said by email.
Dominique Lee, the director of BRICK, also stressed his mission was not a school takeover but an opportunity to provide help to the school.
BRICK is now involved in the city’s Avon and Peshine Avenue schools, two facilities that Hawthorne families frequently mention have not done as well as their own school.
“We’re not a takeover; we don’t do that,” Lee said yesterday. “We’re about what can we do to help take it to the next level.”
That includes extended day programs, enrichment programs, and considerable fundraising, he said.
Will it include new leadership and staff, or specifically might James, the principal, be kept on? Lee demurred.
“That is something for the district to decide,” he said. “Hopefully, it will be something we can do in partnership.”
James himself has kept a lower profile since returning from his brief suspension, and he would not speak publicly yesterday as Weingarten visited his school.
She ended up meeting with some teachers and leaders of the Newark Teachers Union, while visiting a few classrooms as well.
Among the teachers she met with was Doreen Rayam, a language arts teacher at the school for 21 years and in the district for 31 years. She said the impact of breaking up a neighborhood school like Hawthorne Avenue is palpable.
“Basically, the children become my life, my children,” Rayam said outside the building after school let out. “Even in the midst of the tough times, it was getting better. And in the last four years, you could really see it walking the halls.
“It is more of a family unit, it is more about everyone being one,” she said.
Joining her was Bruce Fryer, another literacy teacher, who cited James’s support of teachers as individuals, working on their strengths and not demeaning them.
But he said there is a clear sense in the move that those teachers are unlikely to be rehired by the new organizations. Without hearing anything yet from the administration, Fryer said such uncertainty would be difficult for any teacher.
“It means these teachers won’t be here come July 1,” he said. “Personally, I’m looking as much outside the district as inside. This is not the kind of environment I want to be a teacher or an administrator in.”