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
– James Baldwin, A Talk to Teachers, 1963
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?
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.
Science Park High School