Jordan Thomas made his way to his parents’ car parked outside Gate 4 of Yankee Stadium in The Bronx Saturday. In a stadium suite, the Rhodes Trust had just completed the final interviews of the students vying for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarships. Jordan carried with him life-changing news–a good sort of life-changing news–that he could barely contain.
“It was surreal,” said the 21-year-old Princeton University senior in an interview Monday. “I had been told to be careful how I made the announcement, especially if we were driving home.”
So he slipped into the car–and the news just burst from him:
“Hey, guys, I’m a Rhodes Scholar!”
HIs mother Mari, at the wheel, burst into tears. His father Neil did a fist pump and almost thrust his hand through the roof of the car. “Yes!” he shouted.
And, outside, on the streets of The Bronx, three representatives of the Rhodes Trust, which administers the scholarships to Oxford University, looked on and smiled at the family scene.
“My mother couldn’t drive right away,” Jordan Thomas said. “She had to pull over several times because she couldn’t see through the tears.”
Neil Thomas said he was crying, too.
“Tears of joy are just so good,” said the veteran Newark public school teacher who, in his career in the states largest school district, has had cause to shed the other sort of tears–he was suspended from his job, apparently for union activities, during the worst excesses of state control of the system. Neil Thomas, a member of the executive board of the Newark Teachers Union (NTU), saw his job eventually reinstated after a lengthy court fight.
The decision by the Rhodes Trust to award one of its annual scholarships for study at Oxford , to Jordan Thomas, a graduate of Newark’s University High School, was spectacularly good news–tears of joy good news–not just to Jordan, not just to his beleaguered family, not just to employees of Newark’s public schools, but, in a way, to every person who believes the nation’s threatened public schools are essential to the political, moral, economic, and social health of the nation.
Jordan wasn’t simply a bright young scholar–so are Christopher D’Urso of Colts Neck and Jasmine Brown of Hillsborough, the other two Rhodes Scholars from New Jersey picked last weekend.
Jordan Thomas, a symbol of hope for a community betrayed
Jordan Thomas is more. He became a symbol of a community subjected for years to cynical political manipulation. A community betrayed. A community whose public schools were robbed and ravaged by forces outside their control so that outsiders could use public funds to promote and to subsidize privatized charter schools run by the wealthy and politically connected.
The manipulation of the people of Newark–children, parents, employees–was unbearable and led to the election in 2014 of Ras Baraka as mayor against a campaign well-financed by charter school supporters. Sadly, within months, Baraka joined forces with the charter school activists–many of whom were wealthy Montclair residents who manipulated the people of Newark from a comfortable distance.
A young man who found his voice
But, also in 2014, Jordan Thomas, the top student at Newark’s University High–a school singled out for special punishment by then state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson–found his voice. He was the student member of the powerless Newark school board but he had both the insight and the courage to speak out for the people of his city. While he was diligent as a board member, he admitted he didn’t immediately speak out against what the state administration of Republican Gov. Chris Christie was doing to Newark’s public schools.
The schools had been under state control since 1995–but, under the Christie administration, state control meant making the district part of an effort to vastly expand privately-run charter schools in the city. It also meant the hated “One Newark” plan–forced assignment of students, many to charter schools, while public schools were closed and sold off to real estate developers.
In a statement he read to the audience at a Newark school board meeting in 2014, Jordan Thomas conceded he was “guilty of remaining reserved and civil in both action and speech through the duration of the struggle that…occurred in the Newark public schools.”
What finally provoked him to action was the removal by the state of the entire administrative team at his high school, University High. Jordan saw this as part of Christie’s effort to strip public schools of their best people, their funds, their morale.
“This confounding action is a deliberate component of a district-wide initiative to ensure the perpetual deterioration and failure of strong Newark public schools and the rapid proliferation of corporate-backed charter schools,” said Thomas. See his full statement at https://www.bobbraunsledger.com/guest-top-newark-student-says-time-to-speak-is-now/
It was perhaps the crowning moment of the rising up of the Newark community against state control and charter expansion–but the happiness was short-lived. Since that time, the city’s mayor joined with corporate forces, apparently as part of a deal with Christie to return local control. But the system that will be returned to local control–some time next year–will only have a fraction of its students and a fraction of its resources. Those “corporate-backed charter schools” will have the rest–and a growing share. And “One Newark” continues, despite promises by the mayor to get rid of it.
Jordan went off to Princeton after his graduation from University High–where administrators were eventually restored to their jobs–and he continued his interest in the Newark schools, researching and writing about the problems faced by pregnant students. (A full description of his activities at Princeton is printed below).
Jordan’s father Neil faced the fury of the state
Meanwhile, his father Neil Thomas faced the fury of a Christie administration determined to squelch criticism of its policies as master of the public schools. The elder Thomas, long a union activist, was fired from his job at the Lafayette Street School–supposedly because of poor ratings although he had never before received a poor rating. His was one of more than a dozen attempts by the Republican administration in Trenton to use a new tenure law to quiet dissent.
The Newark Teachers Union (NTU) funded the defenses against those state efforts–and won most of the cases, but at great financial cost to the union and the morale of teachers. A state arbitrator referred to the state’s manipulation of the tenure law as “problematic and inconsistent.”
Neil Thomas is back on the job and the happiness he and Mari feel about Jordan has all but erased the worry he felt about his job.
“We are just thinking about happy we are as a family,” says Neil Thomas, who now teaches at American History High School.
Jordan Thomas, meanwhile, is certain about his future. After earning a master’s degree at Oxford, he says he will return to the United States to go to law school. And, after that, he will come back to Newark and serve the public.
“I’m sure it will mean running for office,” says Jordan Thomas. “I am coming home to do what I can for my community.”
The full statement from Princeton University reads:
Princeton University senior Jordan Thomas has been awarded a Rhodes Scholarship for graduate study at the University of Oxford. He is among the 32 American recipients of the prestigious fellowships, which fund two to three years of graduate study at Oxford.
Thomas, of Newark, New Jersey, is concentrating in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and is also earning certificates in Portuguese language and culture and African American studies. At Oxford, he plans to pursue an M.Phil. in Evidence-Based Social Intervention and Policy Evaluation.
Upon learning he had won the scholarship, Thomas said: “The entire moment was really quite surreal. After waiting in a suite at Yankee Stadium for what seemed like an eternity, the selection committee called all of the finalists into the other room and announced that they had reached a final decision. When I heard them call my name, I was in shock for a moment, and then my instant reaction was to shake the hand of all the other finalists and thank them for making this stressful weekend so enjoyable.
“My parents were outside waiting to drive me home, and so they were the first people I told,” he said. “They were so overcome with emotion that they had to pull over and wipe away tears of joy before we could continue driving!”
Thomas said he is looking forward to his time at Oxford for several reasons.
“Although I’m highly excited about the technical skills and knowledge that I’ll gain as a Rhodes Scholar, in many ways it’s the intangible benefits that excite me most. I have no doubt that two years at Oxford will stimulate deep reflection, personal development and a profound evolution of the way that I view myself and the world. When I ultimately leave Oxford, I will likely have changed in ways that I never anticipated, and that unpredictable self-transformation is a significant part of what I am looking forward to most as a Rhodes Scholar.”
Thomas’ senior thesis focuses on the scope of school-based support services the Newark Public Schools District (NPS) offers pregnant and parenting teens. “Specifically, this study aims to assess whether there is a gap between the standards and best practices established nationally and the actual services provided in the district,” Thomas said.
Thomas has firsthand experience with NPS, which represents over 40,000 students. He served as the student representative on the district’s advisory board in 2013-14, prior to coming to Princeton.
That year was one of the most turbulent in that district’s history, Thomas wrote in his Rhodes application. His experience led him “to make two commitments — one being that I would pursue a career in public service and advocate for those most in need of a voice and a helping hand; and the other being that I would always strive to act in the best interests of those affected by my leadership,” he wrote.
Elizabeth Mitchell Armstrong, an associate professor of sociology and public affairs, has known Thomas since his first days at Princeton, having served as his freshman adviser as well as adviser on his junior paper and senior thesis.
“What struck me from the very first was the balance he struck between being willing to pursue new paths while keeping his focus firmly on his educational goals,” said Armstrong, a 1993 graduate alumna of the Woodrow Wilson School. “Neither dilettante nor grind, he is able to balance a disciplined work ethic with a spirit of exploration.”
She said his thesis extends his interest in maternal and child health, which began with his junior paper exploring college students’ knowledge and beliefs about preconception health, and his investigation of health care for women incarcerated at Rikers Island as part of his Wilson School policy task force last spring.
Armstrong also noted “his humility and his genuine sense of gratitude; entitlement is antithetical to his character. He has the heart of a public servant, the mind of a scholar and the courage of his convictions. He truly embodies the highest aspirations we have for our students at Princeton — and beyond, as citizens of the world,” she said.
After completing the Rhodes Scholarship, Thomas plans to pursue a law degree and gain experience in a nonprofit or public interest law firm before transitioning into government by either pursuing a position in the U.S. Department of Education or running for public office.
“[A]s a Newark native, I view the track taken by New Jersey Senator Cory Booker as an inspiration — Newark City Council, then mayor of Newark and ultimately the U.S. Senate,” Thomas said. “Perhaps the offices I pursue will be different, but I have no doubt that I want to serve my hometown before running for a state or federal position.”
At Princeton, Thomas has pursued his interest in education and civic service in the United States and abroad. In summer 2017, as part of the Wilson School’s Scholars in the Nation’s Service in Washington, D.C., he interned in the Office for Civil Rights’ Program Legal Group, assisting civil rights attorneys in enforcing federal civil rights laws and conducting legal and policy research. In summer 2016, through Princeton’s International Internships Program, Thomas interned with a law firm in Lisbon, Portugal, then spent a month in the favela neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro as a volunteer with the LIVE Olympic Project, performing humanitarian and environmental service.
Thomas’ international academic experience includes the Fulbright UK Summer Institute, a cross-cultural academic program at the University of Bristol.
Outside the classroom, Thomas is a fellow for the Freshman Scholars Institute and the Pace Center for Civic Engagement. He is a residential college adviser in Rockefeller College, one of Princeton’s six residential colleges. He also serves on the executive board of Community House, which supports underrepresented area youth in academic success and social-emotional literacy. Thomas served as an advocacy project coordinator for the Princeton chapter of Students for Education Reform and as a mentor for the Princeton College Counseling Project, which supports underprivileged juniors and seniors navigating the college application process at Trenton Central High School.
Charlotte Collins, associate director of the Pace Center, said Thomas “recognizes the importance in taking the theories he learns in the classroom and applying them to the world around him. He is open-minded, open-hearted, and has an innate ability to hear and connect with others.
“Jordan is a leader in the truest sense, a person who is committed to making meaningful and lasting change in his immediate community and the world,” she said.
Thomas is also a member of the Office of International Programs Student Advisory Board and a student trustee of the board of the Princeton University Store.