Newark’s school superintendent belongs to that tribe of self-proclaimed and irresponsible school reformers who contend public schools must be “disrupted” before they can be improved–and she has done so much disrupting that scores of clergy have warned of “catastrophic” consequences. Last night, she faced disruption aimed at her, a group of high school students who stopped a board meeting with their non-stop chants and sat in for the night. Maybe longer.
“We’re staying until we see some steps toward meeting our demands,” said Kristin Towkaniuk, president of the Newark Students Union, who led the demonstration. Chief among those demands is the resignation of Cami Anderson.
The nine students who decided to stay the night received some impressive support. School board members, city council members, and civil rights and community activists and even Mayor-elect Ras Baraka joined the students during the evening and into the night. Baraka, whose candidacy gave hope to pro public school forces in the city, arrived just before midnight to visit with the students.
“I want to make sure they had something to eat, that they were not being mistreated,” said Baraka, who said he supported the students’ demands that Anderson resign and abandon her “One Newark” plan that would replace neighborhood public schools with privately operated charter schools.
Baraka said he would ask acting state education commissioner David Hespe to remove Anderson as a “first step” toward reaching an agreement on how the city can begin to reform education–without disrupting the lives of thousands of children and their parents. Anderson is a state-appointed superintendent because the state took over the school district 19 years ago.
Baraka also endorsed an alternative plan, called “Newark Promise,” that would base school reform in a network of community schools that would offer wrap-around services designed to help children and their families. The protesting students wanted to deliver copies of that report to Anderson.
“But she just walked away and left it there,” said Towkaniuk. “She ignored it.”
The students had led a march and rally before the board meeting but then decided to attend the session. Anderson has refused to attend regular public sessions of the board since February but has come to the panel’s working meetings that do not hear from the public.
As Newark mayor, Baraka, a former high school principal and son of the late poet/playwright Amiri Baraka, has little power over the public schools but his campaign galvanized a demoralized community against state intrusiveness in their operation. State control had primarily been an issue only to the local leadership until, with the full support of Gov. Chris Christie, Anderson began closing neighborhood schools in favor of new charter schools. Then grass roots anger grew.
Pro-Anderson New York financiers plowed $4 million into the campaign against Baraka, culminating in a marathon of television ads in favor of his rival, a pro-Anderson law school teacher and charter school supporter named Shavar Jeffries. Jeffries, who had been on the school board, tried to distance himself from Anderson and her plan but the support from pro-charter groups gave the lie to his attempt to show his independence. He outspent Baraka 8 to 1 but lost the election by a 54 to 46 percent margin.
Last night, school officials refused to allow press to come into the building to talk to the students, but I interviewed students and others through a space in the doors to a lobby. They said they were prepared to be arrested but hoped that would not happen. Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, a member of the school board and its former president, said she would stay with the students until they left.
“I am going to make sure they are all right,” she said.