Nearly 1,000 students–more than half of the school’s enrollment–burst through the doors of East Side High School noon Friday and began a three-hour march around the city, determined to stop the state administration from turning their school into a “turnaround” school with new faculty members and a radically altered program. The passionate yet peaceful demonstration, which closed some of the city’s main thoroughfares, gave new energy to a flagging effort to block state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson from remaking the state’s largest school system.
“She has awakened a sleeping giant,” said Newark school board member Marques-Aquil Lewis, one of four members who joined the march. “This is phenomenal,” said newly-elected board president Ariagna Perello. “This will mean a big change.”
Whether the active participation of a high school, like East Side, with a strong sense of attachment to its neighborhood, will slow down Anderson’s efforts to shutter traditional public schools and expand privately-operated charter schools remains to be seen. One test of the demonstration’s significance will come as early as Saturday when opponents of state control have planned another rally in front of another threated school, Weequahic High, at noon.
If the East Ward can join with the South Ward–where Weequahic is located–to oppose Anderson and state control, then Anderson could be in trouble.
“I believe this is the beginning of a city-wide movement,” said Phil Hellinger, a board member who is from the East Ward.
Whatever else the demonstration proves, it clearly highlighted the organizing capabilities of the Newark Students Union (NSU), an organization that has repeatedly proven itself far ahead of adult groups in challenging the state control of Newark’s schools.
The NSU began organizing at East Side little more than a week ago and, despite opposition from principal Mario Santos, an Anderson ally, pulled off a carefully-coordinated and well-behaved march from the East Ward through the neighborhood’s business section, across McCarter Highway to the downtown section and visits to the federal building–where Chris Christie allies were meeting a sort of justice over Bridgegate–and then on to City Hall and school headquarters at 2 Cedar Street.
The protest march draw a light and unintrusive police presence–a handful of motorcycle and horseback officers–that clearly was there to protect the students, not to impede them.
Mayor Ras Baraka, a staunch opponent of Anderson and state control, has expressed support for student protests and yesterday top aides, including chief school officer Dr. Lauren Wells and the mayor’s brother, Middie Baraka, actually joined the march from City Hall to the school headquarters–where Anderson was a no-show.
One of the key organizers, NSU vice president Jose Leonardo, often led the march and, when he returned the students back to East Side, he told them the struggle against state control was just beginning.
“We have to keep this up,” he told the East Side students. “We have to love each other. That’s the only way we’re going to defeat Cami. Marches and slogans aren’t enough.”
Anderson’s reforms, basically taken from a playbook developed by corporate reformers who favor privately-operated charter schools, has had very little effect on the East Ward so far. She has left schools there alone, concentrating on schools in the city’s predominantly black South, Central, and West Wards.
Her “One Newark” enrollment system, for example, generally allowed East Ward residents to continue to send their children to schools in their neighborhood, while children from the South and Central wards were dispersed throughout the city.
But, two weeks ago, she announced that eight schools, including East Side and Weequahic, would become so-called “turnaround” schools–a vaguely defined so-called “reform” model that requires all teachers either to sign an agreement that they will agree to changes in their schedules and programs or face reassignment as “educators without placement,” or EWPS.
EWPs teachers and administrators are given temporary or, often, no assignments. Hundreds of such school employees are on the EWPs list which costs the city an estimated $27 million annually.
Anderson’s latest efforts to disrupt operation of the city schools was met with a pledge by the Newark Teachers Union (NTU) to “escalate the chaos” and by the reaction of students supporting East Side and Weequahic.
In the past, Anderson–who hasn’t met publicly with the community or the school board in 15 months–has tried to impose radical reforms and then stepped back in the face of opposition. That has led to speculation this time around that she is merely provoking opposition so she can later appear to resolve the controversy. For example, last year, she fired the entire administrative staff of University High School only to change her mind when the students walked out.
That, at least, could be one explanation for her decision to attack East Side as a “turnaround” school–a school that was so badly operated it had to be restaffed. Politically, it made no sense because what many of the few allies Anderson has had have come from the city’s East Ward, including Santos.
Or she just could have blundered–and created a whole new center of opposition to her agenda.
The East Side demonstration was well-timed. It came on the day when two former aides to Chris Christie were indicted for the Bridgegate scandal and a third pleaded guilty to conspiracy in the affair. That brought national media to the federal building–and the students marched right into the media drama.