Nothing illustrates the bizarre internal politics of state control of Newark schools so dramatically as the fate of the city’s Hawthorne Avenue school. Neglected for years, in disrepair, with, until recently, many of its students failing, the old South Ward castle of a school is now the object of a three-way power struggle that leaves local parents frustrated, even frightened, over the future.
“We have one parent with three children—and each of them will probably end up going to different schools,” said Grace Sergio, the president of the school’s parent organization. “They don’t know what to do.’’
What has happened to Hawthorne Avenue probably could not happen anywhere else except in Newark—or, perhaps, other cities where the central administration uses the excuse of reform to spread the wealth of the reform movement: Control over property, access to grants, expansion of a brand. Money.
One of the three contenders for control of the future of Hawthorne Avenue is the TEAM Academy Charter Schools, a politically well-connected charter franchise whose leader, Timothy Carden of Montclair, is a former business partner of outgoing state education commissioner Christopher Cerf. Carden is a principal in a web of non-profit and profit-making corporations that have been able to obtain at least $40 million from a $125 million charter school fund established by Gov. Chris Christie through the New Jersey Economic Development Authority .The EDA is run by Christie’s close ally and friend, Michele Brown, once herself the recipient of a $46,000 pesonal mortgage from Christie; she doesn’t need the money anymore—the EDA pays her $225,000 a year. Carden was a member of the EDA board. He is connected in Christieland.
The EDA has been far more successful in getting construction money to charter and private schools than its sister agency, the School Development Authority (SDA), has been getting repair money to public schools like Hawthorne which shows signs of neglect including falling ceilings, broken walls and peeling paint.
“We have been pleading for years for money to make these repairs,’’ says Sergio. “But we’re ignored.”
Despite the terrible conditions, the school has had success in improving achievement. It outscored neighboring schools—including Avon Avenue—and ranked third in the state in student growth, according to Sergio. Its eighth grade test scores surpass state goals.
The second contender is an odd hybrid of private and public school institutions known as BRICK—an acronym that stands for “Building Responsible Independent Creative Kids.” If TEAM has ties to Cerf, BRICK has ties to school superintendent Cami Anderson. Dominique Lee, BRICK’s founder, was, like Anderson, an alumnus of Teach for America (TFA) who decided to become a school entrepreneur.
With five other TFA members, Lee created a non-profit organization that negotiated its own deal with the Newark public schools that allowed it to take over a public school, the Avon Avenue School. Later it took over the Peshine Avenue School.
Both TEAM and BRICK were building empires in Newark’s South Ward when Anderson, using a warmed-over plan developed by Cerf when he was a private consultant working for Newark, came out with “One Newark.”
At stake was control of the schools in the South Ward, an area that has offered an as yet unfulfilled promise of gentrification and redevelopment. Former Mayor Sharpe James ran afoul of Christie the prosecutor when he tried to coax private developers into rebuilding what was once one of the most affluent areas of the city—before real estate companies found it a prime target for block-busting in the 1960s. Thanks to a few real estate agencies frightening homeowners into selling, property values tanked in a matter of two to three years. But property values are on the rise, people with money are moving back in–and that’s a market for school privatizers with friends in high places who can arrange for public schools to fail.
The third contender—the one with the least chance for success—was, of course, just the public school itself, the parents and teachers of the conventional school. It is a K-8 school that, in the last few years, has outscored other neighborhood schools, including BRICK, on standardized tests.
“We were told we would be closed, given away to charters because we were underperforming—and that’s simply not true,” says Sergio. “We’re outperforming BRICK.”
Sergio has led protests almost every morning outside the school, arguing against its closing and its likely transfer to either TEAM or BRICK. But this is where it really gets confusing—and hard on parents. Although she has issued several “final” versions of “One Newark,” Anderson ahs kept the fate of Hawthorne up in the air.
Originally, she promised it to TEAM, apparently so the well-connected charter franchise—part of KIPP schools– could consolidate its eventual control of South Ward schools. But TEAM doesn’t like to take over entire schools—it wants to start new ones because it has a better chance of succeeding once it can control who their students are. Then, or at the same time, she apparently promised it to BRICK—Lee points to a history of taking over failing schools. Then Andrson came up with a bizarre hybrid plan that would give control of Hawthorne to TEAM with the proviso that TEAM would lease it to BRICK, so both private organizations could share in the spoils.
That angered Lee. One of his supporters told me, “We had promises from her that we would take over Hawthorne and then she broke her promise.” Not only was Lee supposed to get Hawthorne, but neighboring Bragaw Avenue as well.
In the last “final version” of “One Newark,” Anderson offers two options. A K-1 school for TEAM or a K-4 school to BRICK. Notice that none of these models solves the real problem—where will parents in the neighborhood send their children to school? Neither a K-1 school nor a K-4 school helps the children now in the upper grades. But children in Newark are often the last consideration.
Normally, decisions about what happens to taxpayer-owned and funded public schools are carefully studied and options are presented to parents and others before a decision is made. But this is Newark where Anderson has the power to run the system like a state-appointed dictator.
So, private negotiations are going on behind closed doors—and maybe even over coffee at iHOP where Anderson has been known to meet political figures. The latest model is a proposal from Lee that would certainly help his cause and even the cause of those who love the old, traditional public school.
In an email to Peter Turnamian and Gabrielle Wyatt, two of Anderson’s chief lieutenants, Lee offered this shocking alternative—leave Hawthorne Avenue alone. Well, sort of. He would take it over, but he would keep it as the K-8 school as it is now. Not only would the school remain open, but its leadership would remain on board.
Get this: Lee wrote, “It is BRICK’s desire that the leadership of Hawthorne remain in their positions. After meeting with them and looking over the past three years of their performance we are confident that a strong partnership can be formed.”
Got that? Hawthorne Avenue has done such a great job, it should be left alone—except, of course, control should be given to entrepreneur Lee. But the whole point of closing Hawthorne was supposedly its failure, right? The whole point of privatizing so many neighborhood schools in Newark is that they fail–with a little help from Christie’s friends on Cedar Street.
Leaving Hawthorne Avenue alone is probably a good idea. But there’s a catch. The progress that has been made at the school is due to its principal, a man named H. Grady James.
The same H. Grady James who was suspended by Anderson for speaking out against “One Newark.” The same H. Grady James who is suing Anderson for violating his First Amendment rights.
“Somehow, I don’t think Anderson cares enough about the children here to allow them to remain in a school that was becoming a success,” Sergio says.