A gifted Newark teacher asks: Why are we not good enough to educate our children?

Jonathan Alston
Jonathan Alston

EDITOR’S NOTE: I am proud to present this guest blog by Jonathan Alston, an English teacher and debate coach at Newark’s Science Park High School. Alston, born and raised in Newark and educated at Science and Yale, recently guided his debaters to  1st, 2nd, and 3rd places in a national tournament at Berkeley. He has coached seven state debate champions.  Alston also is co-host of “All Politics Are Local,” the Hip-Hop Political Radio Show. He publishes the blog Newark Teacher where this essay first appeared. It was written before Lamont Thomas, Science Park’s principal, resigned. I must caution readers it contains offensive language that I would not use but, coming from the heart, mind and soul of a gifted African-American teacher and writer, it adds raw and essential truth and  power to his profound analysis of what is wrong with Newark–and New Jersey. And, yes, in fact, the State Board of Education has the legal power to remove Cami Anderson and restore local control of the schools.

By JONATHAN ALSTON

 

To the NJ State Board of Education: Remove Cami Anderson and Establish a System of Local Control – What is Going On in Newark is a Democracy Movement

     “As Washington has increased its control over our students’ education, our children have fallen further and further behind their peers around the world. When Washington, DC took over Common Core in the Obama administration, it pulled education away from our neighborhoods. That is not what is best for the investment New Jersey is making in our children’s education. This should not come as a big surprise. Whenever this federal government has crowded out local control, things have only gotten worse.” – NJ Governor Chris Christie, May 28, 2015, Burlington Community College.
     “It’s really shocking to me that students walked out in a protest on a sunny Friday afternoon. When they start walking out on a rainy Tuesday, maybe I’ll take it more seriously. They can walk out and protest as much as they want…No, I’m not changing my opinion on this.”- NJ Governor Chris Christie, May 29, 2015, when a reporter asked if his arguments about the need for local communities to control education applied to the people of Newark.
     “So where we are now is that a whole country of people believe I’m a “nigger,” and I don’t , and the battle’s on! Because if I am not what I’ve been told I am, then it means that you’re not what you thought you were either! And that is the crisis.”
– James Baldwin, A Talk to Teachers, 1963
Part I
     There is a crisis in Newark, and the crisis is about education, democracy, and the horrible, thinly masked legacy of racism in our country. The NJ State Board of Education is being asked to not only remove Cami Anderson from her post as the state’s appointed Superintendent of Newark’s Public Schools, but to also renounce its 20 year old system of State control. In a more basic way, the State Board is being asked to renounce the destructive system of white rule currently strangling even the best of Newark’s public schools. And it must do this not just so that the people of Newark can rebuild its system on our own terms, but so that the individuals on the NJ State Board of Education can stop perpetuating a blatantly racist policy of disenfranchisement in Newark.
     When New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said that local control over education is good and important, but not in Newark, what is being said? Why not in Newark? After 20 years, what makes the people of our city not good enough to have any say over the education of our children?
     The residents of Newark do not control one dollar that is spent, one book that is bought, one charter school that is opened, or one public school that is closed. We don’t even control what schools in the city our children attend.
     Governor Chris Christie never directly called the people of Newark niggers. He never formed those specific sounds with his mouth. But do you really have to call us a nigger when you are continually treating us like one? When you are treating an entire school system full of students and parents and teachers, and administers like one.
     I don’t like the use of the term nigger. It is a hateful and ugly word. But what makes the word so ugly isn’t the sound of the word. The ugliness is rooted in the hateful ideas and assumptions about African-Americans that reach so far down inside of us, we do not know it’s there – at least not until it blurts into the air.
     When I heard governor Chris Christie’s response to the two thousand protesting students who shut down the highway entrance to route 1, the Newark airport, and the NJ Turnpike, I  understood what I and every other resident of Newark had been called. The governor never said the words, but his meaning was as clear as it was in the 1950s, or the 1920s, or when that Supreme Court justice declared that Black people “have no rights that a white man was bound to respect.” So our governor can say without irony that local control is good, just not good for those people – not really people – in Newark.
     The NJ State Board of Education is in a difficult position. There is no neutral decision. Either you betray the sentiments of the person who appointed you, or you add to the hateful disrespect being liberally poured on Newark residents. There is real rage building in our city, and it is the rage that comes from being continually ignored. The current Superintendent refuses to attend public meetings, and the State Commissioner of Education rules that is okay. The Mayor joins hundreds of parents and teachers in a protest that shuts down a major Newark street, and the states largest newspaper ignores it, printing not a word. The superintendent creates a pool of teachers without classrooms that costs over $20 million per year, running up a $70 million dollar deficit.
     As I write this letter principals who finished writing their budgets months ago are cutting even more teachers from their shrinking staffs. But the Superintendent’s contract is renewed because she is such a good manager.
     She hurts, sells, and destroys Newark institutions without ever having to answer to anyone in our city.
     Do you really have to call us niggers when we are so easily and constantly treated like ones?
     What is going on in Newark is a democracy movement, and every one who sits on the State Board of Education is a part of this movement. The only question is what will be your part?  Will you have heard us as Newark residents, parents, teachers, human beings? Or will you dismiss us as niggers, wishing our silence while further stoking our rage.
     When Newark burned or Los Angeles burned or Ferguson burned or Baltimore burned, so many suburban whites asked why. The answer may be painfully simple. You don’t have to call us niggers when you treat us like ones. If Black lives really mattered, we wouldn’t have to say it.
     The students and parents and teachers and residents protesting are peaceful. From everything I have seen their intent is to have their voices really heard. But you can’t continue to subject a community to continued institutional violence and expect all of the reactions to be precise and controlled. The purpose of democracy, real democracy, is to allow voices to matter, humanity to be acknowledged. The State Board of Education can either choose to dismiss our humanity or embrace it. I cannot conceive of a middle ground between dignity and disrespect. And both choices have consequences.

Part II
Maybe you feel that state control and increasing charter schools is giving parents more choices, so democracy in Newark isn’t needed. I hear this insult so often. If the people of Newark had a choice between having $800 million for our community to determine how we want our children to be educated, or we could give that $800 million to 60 predominately white people from other communities so that they could create institutions that they believe would best educate our children, which do you believe we would choose? Which would you choose for yourself and your community?

 

In public education, you cannot say the word choice without democracy. Describing the options your master has given you as choice is perverse and delusional; it twists and distorts the meaning of that word until it only makes sense if you place the word nigger in front of it. White communities in New Jersey do not choose their educational options in this way. But that is the “choice” you would give to us?

Part III
Ultimately, this superintendent is actively hurting institutions that were either thriving or improving before she came to Newark. In 2010 US News and World Report ranked close to one third of Newark’s public high schools as some of the best in the United States: Science Park, Technology, History, University, and Arts.

 

This list did not even include drastically improved, quality institutions like East Side and Central High School and Early College. Central High School had such impressive innovation that former NJ education commissioner Chris Cerf accused them of cheating and had to apologize. East Side and Science Park are the first and second largest schools in the city. There are many educators in Newark’s public schools who have been working very hard, dedicating huge parts of their life to improving education. She has undermined our efforts.

The principal of Science Park may leave this year. No administrator in the District had been given a raise since 2009. After increasing test scores, expanding advanced placement programs, introducing an International Baccalaureate program to the district, Harvard educated principal Lamont Thomas felt threatened and harassed by Cami Anderson and her people.

 

If he does leave this year, Newark will lose a great administrator. And he will not be the first. Many quality administrators have opted to leave Newark for higher pay and less – what they consider – deliberate sabotage.

 

Two years ago she said that she was laying off all department chairs and for months they had no idea if they would have a job in September, so our very accomplished English department chair and science chair left for more pay and less stress in the suburbs.

 

In the coming school year Cami Anderson is forcing 80 minute block schedules on Science Park and every other school in the District without any advanced faculty-wide discussion or training.

 

The teachers at East Side don’t even know for certain if they will be punished by random transfers or forced into the growing pool of teachers without placement for daring to want a collective say in how their school is run. No pedagogical reason needs to be given. At Science, we are additionally being told to take 35 minutes per day from instruction to speak to students in small groups, again without any pedagogical explanation or training. There is deliberately manufactured chaos at our city’s best schools.

Two years ago Mr. Thomas and our staff created a plan to address the low population of African-American males in our school and received buy-in from most staff members after heated debate. It was even approved by Cami Anderson in front of a room filled with our parents. Then, without explanation or consultation, it was shut down by her subordinates.

 

Although Science is one of the best schools in the country, our staff works really hard each year to get better, and time and again – because of decisions like these – there is a feeling among the staff that a school like Science does not fit into Cami Andersion’s vision of education in Newark. We are not a “failing” school. Our test results and advanced programs are higher, more intense, and more plentiful than they have ever been, but our principal may leave because he is tired of fighting our district. He is tired of their relentless attempts to drag us down. State control is actively draining our most talented resources.

There are many more stories of deliberately manufactured chaos within Newark’s already improving or already successful schools. Central High School’s principal recently wrote about Cami Anderson’s administration flooding her school with special needs students without providing legally mandated supports. Last year University High School’s entire administrative team was removed and then placed back within a week.

 

We need the NJ State Board of Education to stop the strangling of our efforts and our spirits. The protests of teachers, students, and even administrators are part of a larger movement for democracy in public education. The two things were meant to work together.

The excellence you claim to want in Newark is exactly the reason why Cami Anderson must leave, and why local control must be restored. When the governor said that local control was the reason for the ills and failures that plague Newark today, he was appealing to your inner racist. Newark hasn’t had local control since 1995. He is disparaging a system that the State of New Jersey has controlled for two decades, but blaming the residents for perceived ills.

 

He has no idea that close to one third of our city’s high schools were recently among the nation’s best. He ignores the ground breaking innovation that was done at Central, innovation that should be replicated. And he knows that all he has to do is say Newark and failure and questions about the failure of state control cease. Because when he says Newark and failure, he is saying Newark and nigger. And Niggers should not have a say in the education of their children. They cannot be trusted to be educators and parents and producers of knowledge and technique.

 

You don’t have to say the word to use the word when the ugliness is embedded in your actions.

Newark is in the midst of a democracy movement. Those who have been speaking out believe that public education and democracy go hand in hand. The governor, by his remarks, generally believes the same. The difference is that for me, for many of the students and teachers and administrators protesting in the streets and planning in office corners, democracy in education does not cease to have value when it enters communities who are Black and brown. I believe that the people in Newark who are fired up about democracy and education will gain even more fire moving forward. More people will speak and this movement will grow. How you react to this fire will help shape it. There is so much anger about white control over education in Newark. And that anger is deeply, deeply justified. You don’t have to say certain words for us to know what you mean. The NJ State Board of Education will have to figure out what it wants to say.

Jonathan Alston
English Teacher
Science Park High School

18 comments

  1. Brian

    As a former colleague of Mr. Alston’s let me start by saying that you will be hard pressed to find a man more dedicated to his craft and his community. Sadly for the children of Newark, their parents, and the dedicated educators and administrators who work in this city your success is a threat to the narrative being pushed from Trenton,
    2 Cedar, and Cory Booker’s Senate
    office. A district in crisis that fails the city provides the justification for wholesale corporate pillage of Newark’s education establishment. Beacons of success are a tangible threat to this narrative are to be sabotaged by any means. This is the sad reality in Newark today. The community is treated as if they are incapable of making educated choices for themselves. What you are left with is a paternalistic and both overtly and covertly racist structure that believes that a small cadre of carpetbaggers from near identical backgrounds are the only voices that matter. What the Newark Student Union has been doing is a wonderful rebuke to this mindset. Newark IS a city with bright minds and amazing families who should be the sole decision makers in regards to their children’s education. Twenty years of a failed policy must be cast aside. The governor of this state uses the city and its citizens as a prop for his corporate agenda. He doesn’t understand the people of this city on any level and frankly he doesn’t care to. Mr. Alston’s words ring true and strike at the heart of all that’s wrong with the status quo. I commend him for his courage and dedication.

  2. Threatened out West

    That is why you never mess with debate coaches! Congrats in all of your success and this letter, Mr. Alston, from a debate coach in the west!

  3. Becca Fields

    Mr. Alston is everything that we celebrate in our schools. I deeply admire his eloquence and truth speaking and I hope that there are no ramifications from the district for his courage to speak up against the oppression that we all must fight

  4. DeeplyConcerned

    Powerful piece! Unfortunately, the State Board of Education, like every other board and entity within NJ’s executive branch these days, operates under Christie’s despotic rule — it’s little more than a rubber stamp for his personal agenda — and the majority of the current members were appointed by him. Although the children of Newark continue to be victimized by policies that have nothing to do with improving the quality of their education, it’s unimaginable that the cowards on the State Board will stand up to the Gov and remove Cami Anderson on their own initiative, notwithstanding her brutal incompetence and incessant failings as an educator. I hope I’m wrong, but I fear that Cami’s here to stay until she becomes a serious threat to the Gov’s doomed national ambitions.

  5. Donna

    Bravo Mr. Alston, Bravo. All the rhetoric in the world, all the doublespeak, all the say this but do that, from Cami and Hespe and Christie – no one is buying it any longer. There is a clear disrespect from them for the children/students, parents, and teachers of Newark, because there is money in education, and the powers that be, with ideas about education from ALEC to save monies, and Bill Gates to get technology into schools to eventually rid schools of teachers, and TFA and even the Federal Government backing TFA to privatize education. Our tax dollars are freely flowing into private bank accounts, and the rich get richer and our children get dumbed down education and are taught to be “workers” instead of critical thinkers, al in the name of profits. I grew up in Newark and was educated in Newark. I work in Newark. It pains me to see what is happening to education, and especially to Newark schools, students, families. The blatant disrespect is especially amazing–and that teachers and principals are on salary lockdown, schools aren’t getting proper supplies and buildings are crumbling, yet Cami Anderson is reaping a large salary and bonuses for not doing what she should be by normal Superintendent standards, but in the upside-down world of reformers, she receives accolades for creating upheaval, selling off public schools to charters, embracing charters over public schools, and organizing the “one-Newark” app to funnel more students into charters for Chris Christie’s cronies. There is buy in from the President on down. President Obama has done so much harm to education across the U.S. It is totally shameful.

    Mr. Alston, I applaud you. Thank you for speaking truth.

  6. YG

    “Manufactured chaos” is about the best phrase I have heard to really capture what is happening in the city’s educational system! It is unimaginable that anyone can talk about a failed school system when the State has has been in control for 2 decades! I’ll tell you why the State Board, Gov, etc won’t remove Ms. Anderson – MONEY!! Newark is an up and coming city and MILLIONS pass through these great streets. That power will not be relinquished easily. Yet I’m gonna keep praying that the back of the devil is broken when it comes to our kids’ education!!

  7. Theresa Farinella

    Cami Anderson and Chris Christi are following the GOPagenda set forth by the 1%, which is to educate every child in the U.S. for $10,000 instead of $15,000 so that the 1% can steal the other $5000. They operate like any other corporation that wants to sell an item to every person in the United States.

  8. Urban Educator

    Teachers not of color are also affected by the toxic environment imposed by the upper echelons of Newark Public Schools administration.

    Bob Braun: Yes, you are right. But I think Jonathan Alston is talking more about Newark residents and voters, don’t you?

  9. Ike Onyema

    ‘Black Lives Matter’ is a euphemism for ‘We are not niggers.’ I earnestly suggest we begin to use the latter phrase. Thank you Mr. Alston.

  10. Iqway

    Bob,

    Thank you for keeping the Community well informed; this Tuesday board meeting will have viable speakers from a few parent associations. It is the 5:30 Cedar St Business Board meeting parents are asking for all types of support!
    In addition, have you been able to investigate the ties with NPS administrators and Newark “Biased Charter School Supporter” Trust and now it seems Leadership Newark (which just had the NPS head speak at their summit for an entire day at Rutgers last week)? There are various and many levels of players its making the connection of the fiscal and political agendas to this very huge machine coming after Newark. Lets dig deeper there it is much more to this plan and story it seems.

  11. Iqway

    Professor Alston,

    Thank you for being a great leader and a true Newarker that has not given up on our children. I admire you and I personally thank you!
    Wish all teachers and administrators began the strike with parents and children to just demonstrate our unity but show our capability to organize our city for our children and communities.
    Thank you from PTA’s United

  12. Pingback: Re: A Gifted Newark Teacher Asks Why Are We Not Good Enough To Educate Our Children? « The Teacher's Desk
  13. mike

    Manufactured chaos? Yes, but ultimately more like manufactured failure.
    The “reformers” like Booker, Christie, Cami, Duncan and the big money and big political power players behind them want Newark Public Schools to fail so they can be easily swept aside to implement their grander schemes.

    “So our governor can say without irony that local control is good, just not good for those people – not really people – in Newark.”

    Best point in the article!

  14. Clem Farar

    My brother you have said a mouth full and I commend you on dedication to the youth of our city and it’s future.

  15. Sue

    I am a white teacher in Newark. I want to say that this isn’t true, but it is true. It is blatant and it is “OK” because the majority of people in Newark are black. Where else in NJ would it be OK for the superintendent to not interact with the public? Where else in NJ would high schoolers making a stand, for what they believe in, be dismissed as kids who just want to leave school early because it’s a sunny Friday? Other districts in NJ would have that superintendent removed immediately and those high schoolers protesting would be lauded for their commitment and activism. And the government would support them. It is racism.

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