Sad. There’s a word rarely heard in the context of the state’s war on Newark’s neighborhood public schools. Sad. Yet the story of how a cruelly tone-deaf state bureaucrat named Cami Anderson is singlehandedly destroying a community’s neighborhood schools is just that. Sad. And nothing more illustrates that sadness than the brave but probably futile effort of one successful neighborhood school to remain alive despite Anderson’s promise to give it to privatized educational entrepreneurs who include former business partners of the recently resigned state education commissioner.
“What more do we need to do?” pleaded Grace Sergio, the outgoing president of the Hawthorne Avenue School parent organization. “What more do we need to do?” She was speaking to a –sadly—impotent Newark school board that Anderson, appointed by Gov. Chris Christie, has all but reduced to an irrelevance. Anderson is required to attend the board meetings but has refused. She goes to out-of-state conferences instead.
Sergio’s question is important, not only in the limited context of the state’s efforts to strip Newark of its neighborhood schools—and this in a city with little intra-district busing—but also in the larger context of the war on public education statewide and nationally. As part of what Anderson calls the “One Newark” plan, Hawthorne Avenue will be closed and reopened as a hybrid charter (TEAM Academy, part of KIPP) and so-called “Brick academy,” a quasi-public school run by a school principal, a Teach for America graduate. The arrangement doesn’t look pretty and it has been changed several times—but this isn’t about education or organizational elegance; it’s about helping Anderson’s friends politically and financially.
Sergio, who describes herself as a “stay-at-home mom,” raised every argument she could to refute the basic—and often repeated–premise underlying Anderson’s unrelenting assault on neighborhood schools, that they fail. Hawthorne Avenue is not failing, she said. It is one of the best schools in the city and she had the numbers to prove it.
The school ranked first in the city in student growth, she said. It ranked third in the state among peer schools in student growth—and seventh in academic achievement.
“What more do we need to do?” she asked again and again.
Anderson’s treatment of Hawthorne—and similar schools throughout the state’s largest district—has been a nightmare. A sad nightmare. She stripped the school of its librarians, its counselors, its attendance personnel. She has ignored constant pleas to repair crumbling walls and leaking ceilings—promising repair money only after she gave the building to TEAM Academy, the local name for KIPP charters, and the Brick schools. The head of TEAM Academy, Tim Cardin, is a former business partner of Christopher Cerf, the recently-resigned education commissioner. All three–Cardin, Cerf, and Anderson–worked for the New York City schools.
Parents at Hawthorne and other schools believe Anderson is stripping neighborhood schools of facilities and personnel—she plans to lay off a third of the district’s teachers—so she can prove her point that neighborhood schools are failing and need to be replaced by charters and other privatized entities.
But Hawthorne isn’t failing. It’s succeeding, and not just as measured by test scores. The school is a model of community support. Its parent group commissioned researchers at a local college to measure parent support for the school. The study showed virtually all parents agreed with statements like “My child’s school believes that every child can learn” and “My child is learning what it is needed to be successful.”
Most dramatic was the reaction of the parents to the so-called “Universal Application,” a component of “One Newark” that gave families the right to apply to any school in the city, charter or public. Hawthorne has 340 students, K-8; Sergio reported that, not only did the families refuse to apply to other schools, but parents of 268 children registered them to attend Hawthorne Avenue for next year.
Hawthorne parents have sent letters both to Anderson and charter school leaders, pleading with them not to destroy their school. They have received no answer, not even from Ryan Hill, the director of TEAM Academy, an articulate educator who portrays himself as sympathetic to the plight of neighborhood schools. Obviously, there is too much at stake here for the TEAM/KIPP brand for sympathy to get in the way of greed.
Yet how popular will charters be if Anderson gets her way? Right now, they appear to be as insensitive as Anderson, their chief patron. Newark parents won’t soon forget.
It’s not exactly accurate that Hawthorne parents received no response. While the children were away and the school closed for Easter break, a team of TEAM/KIPP Academy officials and appraisers descended unannounced for a tour of their latest trophy from Anderson. School officials have been ordered to strip the school bare—“broom clean”—so it can be turned over to KIPP. KIPP will operate a K-1 school, while Brick operates K-4. Parents in the higher grades simply will have to leave. Go someplace else. Sad.
“Our leaders have led,” Sergio said. “Our teachers have taught. Our students have learned. And our parents have participated.”
Sergio’s son Pedro also spoke at the meeting, “Our students,” said the eighth-grader, “finally believe that we can be from an urban area and perform just as well as other schools in Newark and in the state.”
He asked this of Anderson: “Shouldn’t you be proud of us?”
Pedro is only 14. He hasn’t learned yet some hard lessons about greed and politics. Only the governor can remove Anderson, he won’t, and Anderson knows it. It allows her, for example, to ignore a plea from 77 of the city’s religious leaders—including a strong Christie supporter and the former president of the National Council of Churches—to suspend the “catastrophic” plan.
She responded to criticism during a panel discussion at a recent conference in Arizona where she compared critics of her plan to people who might invade an operating room and scream and shout at the surgeon working on a patient. In an almost unbelievably bad attempt at humor, she offered to bring her brothers to Newark as a sort of goon squad to confront her critics. She referred to Newark as “horrible.”
The chances are good—barring the intervention of a new state education commissioner, David Hespe, who held the job before and proved to be reasonable—Anderson will implement her plan, despite delays and a recent admission she has no final plan for transportation and special education.
But Newark will never be the same. Her intransigence has all but guaranteed the election May 13 of Ras Baraka, a staunch opponent of her plan. Emotions run high in the city—students have walked out of classes twice and promise more. At last night’s board meeting, one member—Alturrick Kennedy—literally wept because he feared he had failed his constituents by his inability to stop Anderson. He has made videos of just how long it will take for children to walk to their new schools.
“It’s so wrong,” repeated the young man, choking back tears. “It’s so unfair.”
But crying for Newark will do no good to those who have no hearts. This isn’t about right and wrong. This isn’t about fairness. It isn’t even about education.
It’s about money and power and greed.