Hundreds of students burst out of beleaguered University High School in Newark this morning to protest what they fear are sweeping changes to a school that has been one of the highest ranking in the state for years. The changes denounced by the students included Friday’s firing of the magnet school’s principal and six vice principals, the possible reassignment of the school’s teachers and a new “direction” for the successful school..
Chanting “Save our school!” and “Cami must go!” the students marched through the neighborhood and then headed downtown toward 2 Cedar Street, the headquarters of the Newark Public Schools (NPS) and the office of Cami Anderson, the state-appointed schools superintendent. Their representatives were not allowed to meet with Anderson.
Many of the students carried hand-made placards calling for the restoration of principal Regina Sharpe and her vice principals, protection for the school’s teachers, the return of local control, and Anderson’s dismissal.
“Teachers are our main priority and they deserve to have job security,” said student leader Khadiha Bhatt, who also spoke later in the day at a school board meeting. “We stand together and support our teachers; they shouldn’t have to reapply for their positions, as many teachers have had to across the district. ”
She added, “We are tired of our education being played with,” student leader Khadija Bhatti told the students. “We are not commodities. We do not want to be part of privatization.”
Jamani Montague told the students Cami Anderson was a “monster that disrespects the parents and students” in Newark.
“We are walking out today to protest the termination of our principal, administrators and teachers. We are walking out today to advocate local control of our schools. And most importantly, we are walking out today to insist on the immediate resignation of Cami Anderson.”
At last night’s meeting, Bhatt told me she believed all teachers at University High School would not be reappointed to the school. I spoke with Jose Velasquez, the Newark Teachers Union representative at the school. He said that, of 50 teachers at University, four were non-tenured and, of those, two had received letters of non-renewal. It is, of course, still possible that other teachers might be let go.
And, in any event, the bigger problem is the alleged “new direction” of the high school. Both the students and Velasquez believe the Newark schools administration is converting the magnet school into a comprehensive high school with no special admission requirements. Both say they believe Cami Anderson is trying to demonstrate that even magnet schools cannot do better than her favored charter schools.
Sharpe stood outside the school and watched the students march out. She said she was “happy” for her students but would not talk about the circumstances surrounding her dismissal or the students’ demands.
“I have thought only of these children since the day I first got here,” said Sharpe, who became principal last year after service as vice principal at University for 10 years.
Sharpe estimated about a third of the students at the school–about 200–took part in the walkout. Another school employee put the number at between 250-300. Students themselves said they believed about 400 students participated.
Universirty High School is considered one of the top-ranked high schools in the state, according to performance reports issued by the state Departnment of Education. Anderson has contended her plans for change were aimed at failing schools–and University is certainly not one.
A leader of the union representing school administrators called Anderson’s behavior “bizarre” and “frightening.”
Len Pugliese, the executive director of the City Association of School Administrators (CASA), called the dismissal of Sharpe and six others “just the most recent in a series of bizarre actions taken by Superintendent Anderson.” He added:
“What is most frightening is that, although Anderson has a well-documented history of unexplained behavior, her bizarre behaviors are becoming more frequent. I pray that there is some immediate intervention from the state Department of Education.”
The student walkout was only one of a number of events occurring yesterday in an increasingly tense Newark, a city torn asunder by Anderson’s aggressive promotion of the so-called “One Newark” plan that is closing neighborhood schools and launching new charters. Parents held a 1 pm press conference to discuss a civil rights complaint filed with the US Department of Education.
Acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe met with students who last week occupied a school board meeting and refused to leave unless at least one of their demands were met–and the meeting with Hespe is one of them.
After the meeting, members of the Newark Student Union, which organized the board session takeover, held a press conference in which they said that, while Hespe and Anderson listened to them, the commissioner and superintendent offered no hope of a change.
Kristin Towkaniuk, the head of the Newark Students Union, said she believed the meeting was held merely to placate them. “I think they held a meeting just so they could say they held a meeting,” she said.
Towkaniuk also said Anderson indicated she intended to press on with her “One Newark” plan and gave no indication she would be leaving soon, as predicted by teacher union leaders.
Earlier predictions that last night’s school board meeting might be shut down by groups of students or teachers–or both–never became reality.