UPDATE — The NJEA’s communications director has responded to this article. It picks up where my blog leaves off. I don’t appreciate the personal attacks and use of what I wrote in personal emails but, hey, pr people do what they got to do:
There was hope in the spring. In March and April when the anti-privatization forces took to the streets, even in Trenton, and Wendell Steinhauer, the president of the 200,000-member New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) declared Newark’s fight was the fight of everyone who wanted to save public education.
Remember that? Steinhauer even came to Newark and embraced Joe Del Grosso, the president of the rival Newark Teachers Union, and a smattering of teachers, NJEA members, from throughout the state came to Newark and marched in its streets.
Then, well, nothing much happened. All the legislative efforts that might have helped the parents, children and teachers of Newark just sort of fizzled. Disappeared not with a bang, but with a whimper. All the promises made by all the fine speakers echoed away into the silence of indifference until they couldn’t be heard anymore and, once again, Newark was on its own.
I’ve spoken to people in the NJEA and they’ve told me of the difficulty in getting their members to recognize Newark’s fight is their fight, too. The NJEA doesn’t represent teachers in Newark. But I also know there is much in common with the NJEA-represented teachers in Jersey City and Camden and Paterson, the other three districts taken over and now run by an incompetent state Department of Education.
I think the problem is bigger than that and I was reminded by an unlikely source–the NJEA Review, its monthly magazine. Specifically, the “convention issue” that serves as a program for the big confab it holds every year in Atlantic City and for which the Legislature has carved out a special exemption for teachers to attend.
I got my first real look at Cami Anderson, the tone deaf state superintendent of Newark schools, because of last year’s NJEA convention. That’s when she wrote a letter to Newark parents explaining her insistence that schools remain open, warning parents that crime would go up if their children were home from school. Then she denied writing the letter. I hadn’t paid too much attention to Anderson before then but I knew instantly then she was a liar and a bigot.
So, this year, I paid special attention to the NJEA’s convention program–the 80-page special edition, crammed with all sorts of information the union wants its members to know.
I was stunned. Not by what I saw. But by what I didn’t see.
This was a program for some state other than New Jersey, the most urbanized state in the nation where city school districts are racially isolated and in need of special attention by all of those who claim support for public education. In 80 pages brimming with suggestions and planned workshops the word URBAN did not appear at all, except for an “Urban Ed Brunch” that was an “Invitation Only Event.”
I wonder: Who was doing the inviting? Who would be invited? It was a meeting, not a workshop, not a session at which the problems faced by urban children and their teachers–especially in the season of vast privatization–might be discussed.
The word NEWARK did not appear at all. The word PATERSON did not appear at all. I saw no use of the word BLACK as a reference to a race, as in black history. There were two references to Jersey City–one in a caption of a photo depicting an NJEA staff member helping a member of the Jersey City Education Association and one in an advertisement for St. Peter’s College, which, of course, is located in Jersey City.
The word “Camden” appeared twice. One was a reference to the county, not the city, and the other, in a “directions to Atlantic City” section for potential visitors, noted that the #551 bus goes through Camden on its way to Atlantic City.
The only reference to “African-American” I could find was to a guest speaker, Vernice “Flygirl” Armour, described as “America’s First African American Female Combat Pilot.”
Of the hundreds of workshops on offer for the convention, not one appeared to be aimed specifically at the special problems of urban and minority, or even poor, children. Yes, one on teaching ELL children–English-language learners. And there were workshops on school violence and “safe routes” home and even two on hip-hop music but, somehow, I don’t think they fit what I was looking for.
You would think a program that makes room for seminars on yoga, mountain-climbing, playing the ukulele and teaching about the Leni Lenape Native Americans would be a little more sensitive to the urban nature of New Jersey.
I am not against the convention. I am not against closing schools for two days so teachers can join with their colleagues and learn the latest on offer. I am a lawyer and subject to continuing legal education requirements and I appreciate their need.
I am not joining our clown of a governor as an NJEA critic. I have wondered why the NJEA hasn’t been more forceful in fighting him–from the use of test scores to privatized schools in Camden to curbing the growth of charters. Not that it matters, But I have been against the Puffin Fish on far more issues than the NJEA has been.
But this was an opportunity for what Steinhauer, in the same magazine, called “New Jersey’s largest and most effective union and professional association for public school employees” to make the effort, at least, to say something about the agony of Newark and the agony of Camden and the agony of Paterson and the agony of Jersey City.
The promoters of corporate school change are out to destroy public education. Some, because they want to privatize all public services. Others, because they can make a profit. And still more who want the cities gentrified and sold back to the affluent and the white–and that won’t happen until selective charter schools are created and the neediest children are safely warehoused away where they cannot be a bother or a threat to the genteel gentry.
Ironically, in the conference programs of conventions attended by Cami Anderson and her privatizing colleagues, there is ample discussion of urban problems and how charters can be used to end public education as we know it in the nation’s cities.
But you won’t find that sort of discussion in the NJEA Review’s convention issue.
I sent a note to Steve Wollmer, a NJEA public relations representative. He pointed out a different edition NJEA Review ran article about the “Camden con.” But I was talking about the convention program–a real chance to educate members about what is happening to the children of New Jersey’s cities. I asked this question:
“How can the teachers’ union in the most urbanized state of the union not mention the word URBAN even once in an annual convention that does manage to cover Leni Lenape Indians, the use of ukuleles and mindfulness yoga?” (That was before I found the tiny mention of the “by invitation only” Urban Ed Brunch at the bottom of page 31, but the point remains).
When he answers it, I will publish it here.
Here is the response I received from Steve Wollmer, the communications director for the NJEA:
Bob – I am responding to your blog entry for Saturday, September 20, because it cries out for clarification by NJEA. Its very headline, which contains the word “BETRAYAL” (in capital letters, no less), suggests to your readers some affirmative step taken by NJEA to ignore or diminish the concerns of urban educators and people who live in urban school districts.
For the record, you sent me an email at 12:17 that afternoon, in which you noted the lack of mention in the 2014 NJEA Convention publication of a number of words/terms, ranging from “urban” to “Newark” to “African-American,” and ending with this: “I don’t know exactly what I’m doing with this, but I guess I have a question here somewhere….”
But you knew exactly what you were doing with your information, as your post just a couple of hours later proves. It speaks for itself. It does not, however, represent in any fair fashion NJEA’s history of advocacy for urban education, nor the Convention’s role in supporting that work.
Let me address the Convention first. While it is a fair criticism that its workshops could contain additional offerings specific to urban educators, students, and districts, it’s important to remember that the NJEA Convention is, first and foremost, a professional development event for all educators. It offers educators from all districts (including Newark – which had more than 1,000 teachers attending last year’s Convention) the opportunity to hone the skills that all educators need to do their jobs to the best of their abilities – regardless of ZIP code.
In fact, your critique of the Convention – implying that its hundreds of workshops in virtually every subject area, as well as workshops on special education, ESL, autism, classroom management, school and bus safety, dyslexia, bullying, and the latest in classroom technology, don’t “count” for urban educators – is either misinformed or deliberately misleading. I also believe it is insulting in its implication that those things are less valuable to urban educators. But the Convention has always been open to change and adaptation.
For the record, however, there are other things at this Convention that genuinely matter to urban educators.
NJEA is now in the third year of its Priority Schools program. Talk, we all know, is cheap. But the hard work of helping struggling urban schools to improve is seldom attempted – and is seldom recognized when it is. But thanks to Priority Schools, thousands of students in 26 schools in districts including Camden, Trenton, East Orange, Plainfield, Irvington, Asbury Park, and Linden are benefiting from $850,000 a year in NJEA resources aimed directly at improving their achievement – and pushing back against the corporate “reform” madness that we all agree has to be driven out of Newark, the rest of New Jersey, and America. This program grew out of NJEA’s long-standing support (from the very first court filings decades ago) of the former Abbott districts. With federal and state attention focused on struggling schools (with threats of severe sanctions, including closing, for those that fail to measure up), NJEA stepped up with the Priority Schools program. We assigned our most experienced staff member, who had worked in a former Abbott district, to coordinate the team of 18 highly skilled educators who work as coaches and facilitators, on-site, in this program. They also conduct three weekend workshops a year dedicated to growing the skills of teachers in the schools to which they are assigned.
This year’s Convention will include an all-day session for teachers and staff in our Priority Schools. It’s not in the program you scoured so closely, because it’s not open to everyone. We aren’t seeking headlines, just results.
You grudgingly acknowledged the Urban Education brunch, which is an annual event at Convention. Sponsored by NJEA’s Urban Education Committee (which will hold a statewide symposium in October), it brings together members and leaders from urban districts to discuss common concerns, and features keynoters and panel discussions to add perspective. More than 100 people customarily attend.
Other Convention events that you didn’t mention also have considerable appeal to urban educators.
The State Board of Education meeting is annually a standing-room-only forum where BOE members take questions directly from educators. Urban education issues are always discussed there. Last year, Trenton Education Association members came in force to make the case for SDA funding for a new high school (a fight that NJEA helped lead, and which resulted in a $130 million SDA appropriation for a new high school last year).
The Commissioner of Education also comes to the Convention, and his session is always filled to capacity with a broad cross-section of members, with a heavy urban presence.
Each year, we have two major plenary sessions that seat 2,500 Convention-goers, and one of this year’s presenters – Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg – will describe how his nation’s approach to education is the antithesis of American “corporate reform,” with no standardized testing, charter schools, or vouchers, while revering educators and compensating them as the respected professionals they are. You might want to join NJEA members from urban, suburban, and rural districts at this session on Thursday, Nov. 6.
Your inferences with respect to the Convention cannot be responded to solely in the context of that event, which is the largest professional development event for educators in the world.
Throughout the year, NJEA walks the walk on urban education. We are now engaged heavily in Camden, which, like Newark, is in the crosshairs of the national privatization movement. That work is largely unheralded, because it involves countless meetings, events, lobbying, and other forms of assistance. We have a large team of NJEA staff members who have been working for months in Camden, trying to stop the corporate takeover of its public schools. The “Final Exam” column on page 66 of the September NJEA Review (“Camden’s Corporate Con”) is a hard-hitting piece on the Christie administration’s assault on public education in Camden (and Newark). Meanwhile, the cover story addresses the scourge of corporate reform that plagues all schools, but often hits urban schools the hardest.
NJEA for years has brought its FAST (Families and Schools working Together) program to schools in urban districts, including Newark and Camden. Our staff members work directly with educators and parents to help parents become more involved in their children’s education, while offering them information and resources to do so.
This past year, when Gov. Christie attacked urban students in his State of the State address by implying that few of them were “college-ready,” NJEA immediately responded with a News Service story blasting him for misleading the public. But we didn’t stop there.
NJEA’s entire 2014 PRIDE in Public Education media buy – more than $6 million in TV, radio, and web-based advertising – was dedicated to countering Christie’s attack, by focusing on three college-bound minority students from Paterson, Jersey City, and Camden. That campaign set a record for click-throughs and shares as a result of our web campaign, and was seen by millions of viewers.
NJEA’s Human and Civil Rights Celebration, held each January, draws hundreds of minority (and non-minority) members and dignitaries for an all-day program of cultural, musical, and historical reflection.
Finally, NJEA’s Minority Leadership and Recruitment Conference focuses heavily on urban education, and on ensuring that persons of color have greater access to higher education, one of the best ways to staff more classrooms with minority educators.
Your criticism has already sparked conversation about the addition of offerings next year that more specifically address urban educational concerns, not because they are not already addressed, but because we always want to do more for our members.
Your cursory look at the NJEA Convention Guide is akin to assuming you understand every detail of a movie because you watched the trailer. NJEA and its members deserve better from you, Bob, because we’re all fighting for the same things, and you know it.