Newark Mayor Ras Baraka told hundreds of supporters of Weequahic High School that all city neighborhoods must unite to block plans by state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson to strip more public schools of their faculty and programs.
“Nothing will change unless you change it,” the mayor said as anger continued to spread throughout the city over the latest round of what Anderson terms “reforms”–but what her opponents view as the relentless privatization of the city’s community schools and the destruction of its neighborhoods.
Baraka, who has consistently called for Anderson’s ouster, praised the success of a student walkout the day before at East Side High School. He credited the work of the increasingly powerful Newark Students Union in leading nearly 1,000 students out for a three hour march that included rallies at the federal courthouse, City Hall, and school headquarters. National media were present at the courthouse because of major events tied to the Bridgegate scandal involving Gov. Chris Christie and his top aides.
“These young people have been on the front lines,” said Baraka, standing on the front steps of the iconic high school on Chancellor Avenue in the city’s South Ward.
“Our job is to support them and to protect them.” The mayor said, “It was time for us to organize the city.”
He also expressed strong support for the city’s teachers at a time when the Newark Teachers Union (NTU) has called for job actions to protest changes in work rules and schedules at Weequahic, East Side, and six elementary schools. Anderson said the changes were part of converting the public schools into so-called “turnaround” schools.
The designation has infuriated some of the schools’ supporters because, as defined by federal law, a “turnaround” school is a school that has failed. On Saturday, teachers and other supporters of Weequahic produced documentation that the school was not failing—student scores were going up despite cuts in faculty and other resources.
The federal government defines “turnaround” schools as the “lowest-performing schools.” Cami Anderson has used the same definitions, although she also uses the term “renew” as well.
Here is how one education journal describes the fate of “turnaround” schools:
“Turnaround: Replace the principal and no less than 50 percent of the staff, and adopt increased learning time and instructional reforms.”
Since Anderson announced East Side and Weequahic—and six other schools—would be designated “turnaround” schools, the backlash has been severe—even East Side principal Mario Santos, a Cami ally, has been critical.
As a result, she has tried to backpedal on her criticism. She posted on the Newark school website her own definition of a “turnaround” school. She proved only that she is living in her own reality, divorced from the plain meaning of language and the clear intent of federal law and regulation. This is what she said:
“In previous years, many people thought of a ‘Turnaround’ school as defined by the federal government as needing intensive intervention or as a “Renew” school needing major restructuring. The Turnaround schools we designated this year should not be thought of that way. We are merely seeking to work with each school community to use the previously negotiated MOU to improve student outcomes. Many of the schools that have been designated as “Turnaround” this year have outstanding leadership, terrific teachers, and real momentum.”
The MOU is a reference to the “Memorandum of Understanding” between the NTU and the state in which Anderson was limited to 10 “turnaround” schools per year–under strict limitations. Limitations she has not followed.
Failure is success. Success is failure.
John Abeigon, the chief organizer of the NTU, who also spoke at the Weequahic rally, said he believed Anderson was playing with the reality of language and law in order to divide the city’s neighborhoods one against the other.
“For some schools, ‘turnaround’ means failure—for others, it means success,” Abeigon said. “Anderson wants it to mean whatever she wants it to mean.”
But, for teachers, “turnaround” has real meaning. If they don’t sign an agreement requiring them to work extra hours with virtually no compensation, they can—as the federal ‘turnaround’ definition requires—be let go, sent to the “rubber rooms” as “educators without placements,” costing them their careers and taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.
Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, a school board member and another speaker at the rally, warned the South Ward residents and supporters that Anderson may be repeating a version of what she did last year—threatening some schools with sanctions but then pulling back for political reasons. She did threaten to turn Weequahic over to private operation last year, but then stepped back—primarily because of the strong reaction of Ras Baraka, then a mayoral candidate, who rallied residents in support of Weequahic.
“She just could be tricking you,” she said.
Changing her mind about East Side, for example, could take the steam out of the movement in reaction to her latest changes.
“Then Weequahic will be out there all by itself,” Richardson said.
The Weequahic rally was important for another reason—individual teachers were showing they were unafraid of likely retribution from Anderson who has punished critics who work for the system. At Saturday’s rally, Bashir Akinyele, Juan Alvarez, and Kcyied Zahir, all teachers and coaches at Weequahic, criticized the “turnaround” plan.
They were joined by teachers from East Side, Elliott Street, Miller Street, George Washington Carver, and other schools who said they would refuse to sign the so-called “election to work” agreement (EWA) requiring schedule changes.
Rally organizers said they hoped the demonstration would lead to further pushback against Anderson’s plans. One of the speakers, Larry Hamm, the chairman of the Peopls’s Organization for Progress (POP), invoked Baltimore as a model for Newark to follow.
He pointed out the Baltimore city administration was not moving to address concerns about the death of Freddy Gray until thousands of high school students took to the streets in protest.
Hamm received loud applause when he ended his speech by repeating the phrase, “We’re fired up—and we’re not taking anymore!”