Community schools in Newark were supposed to be the public school answer to expansion of privately-operated charter schools imposed on the city school district by Gov. Chris Christie’s agents. But, now, it turns out, two of the schools selected to receive extra resources as community schools have applied to become charter schools–and won’t withdraw their applications.
The announcement that the two BRICK Academy schools–Peshine Avenue and Avon Avenue–were among the five South Ward schools to be selected as community schools set off a sharp argument between members of the elected school board and state-appointed superintendent Christopher Cerf at Tuesday’s night’s board meeting. Cerf unexpectedly partnered with Mayor Ras Baraka to sponsor the community school initiative at the end of last year.
Board members demanded to know why Cerf and Baraka had chosen Peshine and Avon, schools run like charter schools with enhanced funding and headed by an entrepreneur named Dominique Lee. Lee was an associate of former state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson at Teach for America (TFA), a private recruitment agency that has brought young teachers into the city for brief tenures while seasoned veterans lost their jobs. BRICK stands for Building Responsible Intelligent Caring Kids.
Board member Antoinette Baskerville Richardson said she believed resources to be provided to the community schools “might be best spent” on other public schools in the South Ward that are not seeking to be charters. Schools like George Washington Carver, Chancellor Avenue, and Hawthorne Avenue were mentioned.
Cerf, who did not offer an explanation as to why and how Avon and Peshine were chosen, drew gasps from board members and the audience at Tuesday night’s board meeting when he warned them,” We have to be careful what we say” because criticism of Lee might “push” him to pursue the charter application.
“This might be a form of insurance policy for the schools,” Cerf told the board members, some of whom were clearly stunned at the idea Lee would try to play both sides in the community vs. charter school controversy to ensure his continued control of two publicly-funded schools.
Board member Dashay Carter demanded that the BRICK schools withdraw their applications to become charter schools and Donald Jackson, another board member, reminded the board that the district had provided Lee with extra funding to remain public schools.
Cerf then uttered what some in the audience–including a parent activist who was later ejected–saw as a threat. He said that, if the board members continued to try to pressure him into forcing Lee into dropping the charter school applications, then:
“If it is the board’s desire to push him into become a charter school, then I can do that. If I force him to choose, I can’t predict the outcome.”
Cerf said he believed he could talk Lee into keeping the two public schools he runs as district schools. He said Avon and Peshine were chosen “on the condition and with the expectation” that they would remain public schools.
But the controversy illuminates some of the growing fault lines in what had once been a united front of Newark’s political and school leaders against the 21-year-old state regime and the burgeoning number of charter schools and charter students.
Cerf has long been a supporter of privatized education. In New York City as an aide to superintendent Joel Klein, he closed nearly 100 public schools and opened nearly 100 charters. He was a trustee of a charter school in Newark and a business associate of Tim Carden, the head of TEAM Academy, a chain of charters in Newark.
As state education commissioner, he brought in Cami Anderson to run the Newark schools. After he left, he became a director of a national lobbying group for charter schools–he held that position when Christie brought him back to run the Newark schools.
He arrived in a city where the 2014 election of Ras Baraka as mayor–his opponent, Shavar Jeffries, was a supporter of charter school expansion–signaled strong opposition to the continuing privatization of Newark’s schools.
But something happened–and few know exactly what that something was. Clearly, Baraka and Christie cut a deal that would result in Anderson’s dismissal, a vague promise of a return to local control, and Cerf as the new state-appointed superintendent. A series of sit-ins and marches that marked student and parent militance in the city ended and opened a new era of cooperation between Baraka and the district’s state masters.
The most dramatic result of that alliance, so far, has been Cerf”s support for what had been a platform of Baraka’s campaign–community schools. An organization of educators and parents and other activists known as the Alliance for Newark Public Schools had put the plan together before the 2014 election and Baraka embraced it.
On Dec. 1, 2015, Cerf and Baraka jointly announced what came to be known as the South Ward Community School Initiative (SWCSI), to be funded by what remains of the infamous “Zuckerberg money,” the last of $100 million plus matching funds raised by former Mayor Cory Booker, mostly from Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg.
The original community school plan wasn’t supposed to be restricted to a few schools in the South Ward, Baraka’s home ward. It also wasn’t supposed to have anything to do with charter schools–but Cerf said Tuesday night “there is nothing to prevent a charter school from becoming a community school.”
The designation of the BRICK schools–along with Louise A. Spencer, Belmont-Runyon, and Malcolm X. Shabazz High School–to be community schools heightened suspicions among some parent activists that it was just a pretext for further charter expansion in Newark.
“They’re going to become charter schools,” said Denise Cole.
Donna Jackson, a frequent critic of state control, heckled Cerf and board members and told the panel “don’t give in to his threats.” She was complaining both about the community school plan and efforts to sell off school-owned property.
“It’s not going to happen,” she shouted as a security guard led her from the room.