Richard Barrow is only three, but he is excited about starting school. So excited he often puts on his backpack and parades through the house, telling his father and grandmother and sister he is ready to walk up the street from the home where they all live to his school. To walk with them to their school. His father’s school. His sister’s school. The school where his grandmother has taught for years. But, now, because of people who live far away and don’t understand this is Richard Barrow’s school–his family’s school–the little boy now must be told he can’t go to that school.
Because it isn’t the Barrow family’s school anymore. The Barrows illustrate both the hope and despair of living in Newark–of believing in Newark, of staying in Newark. What has happened to them also illustrates the arrogance and indifference of people–people who don’t live in Newark–who say they favor school “reform” and “turnaround.”
“This is my home, this is my community,” says Freda Barrow. “They have taken it away from me and my family. Sometimes, I think I should leave–but someone has to stay here and fight.”
Freda Barrow is known to many as the woman brings a camera into the midst of the disruption caused by the insensitive and inept policies of Gov. Chris Christie, a Mendham resident whose family fled Newark in the 1950s. Policies he entrusted first to Cami Anderson of New York and then Christopher Cerf, a Montclair resident, people who have shredded the fabric of life in New Jersey’s largest city because they pretend to know better than the city’s residents–and are paid well for this profound arrogance.
What has happened to the Barrow family has happened to many other Newark families but Freda is willing to take risks and talk about how arrogant state control of the city’s schools personally hurts her and her family.
Part of the story is sad but simple. Freda Barrow lives a few hundred feet from the George Washington Carver School. She has taught there since 1999. Her three children–Richard, a Newark firefighter, Erica, and Aja–all attended that school. Her granddaughter Lela, 6, Richard’s daughter, attends that school.
“The school is an extension of our home,” says Freda, 54.
Or was. No more.
The Barrows found out that, because of an alleged “reform” known as “One Newark,” the pre-school program little Richard should have attended was moved to another school. His father applied for him to get into that school–but the little boy was denied admission. Now he will go to a private preschool far away. So he won’t be able to walk with his sister Lela and his grandmother to the school up the street.
But there’s more. Because of another alleged “reform,” this one known as “turnaround,” Freda can no longer work as a fifth-grade teacher at George Washington Carver.
The state declared Carver a “turnaround” school and demanded its teachers sign a so-called “expanded work agreement,” or EWA, to work extra hours for minimum wage. Like many teachers, Freda heeded the advice of her union and refused to sign it, so she was punished and transferred to the Hawthorne Avenue School blocks away where, of course, she won’t be able to walk her grandchildren to school or check on them while she’s working.
“Someone’s going to be late every day–and we’re fortunate, we have a car,” she says.
What Cerf is doing to Barrow and other teachers like her has no basis in educational philosophy or research. It’s simply retribution aimed at those teachers who had the audacity to refuse to be used as pawns in Christie and Cerf’s game.
That is easy to say because, get this–teachers from Hawthorne who also refused to sign the agreement were punished by being sent to Carver.
Hawthorne and Carver and seven other schools–and their neighborhoods–were disrupted just so Cerf could win the approval of his boss, Christie, who has openly lied about the success of so-called “reforms” like “One Newark” and “turnaround.”
Carver can’t be improved on the basis of taking in new, willing teachers committed to this new approach–because the teachers it is taking in from Hawthorne and other schools also are refusing to comply with the terms of the EWA.
It’s mindless teacher swapping for the sole purpose of punishing teachers.
It will produce two sets of teachers working on differing schedules, some starting earlier in the day– and leaving later–than others.
Just as shuffling children around–like Freda’s grandson Richard–was merely a political ploy known as “One Newark” to weaken neighborhood schools and increase charter enrollments, shuffling teachers around for “turnaround” has the same purpose with this added incentive for Cerf: it hurts the union.
“But it destroys, not just neighborhood schools, but neighborhoods,” says Freda Barrow. “I don’t mind working the extra hours but the EWA was just open-ended–no one should have signed it.”
The kids, and their parents, and their teachers can just–in the minds of Christie, Anderson, Cerf–they can all just go to hell. Doesn’t hurt their kids, out there in Mendham, Montclair, and Glen Ridge.
“I know there are children whose older brothers and sisters had me as a teacher at Carver and I know they’re thinking they will have me,” says Freda Barrow. “I know their parents and they want me there, too. But the children won’t see me when they get there. They won’t know any of their new teachers. It will be a totally different school.”
Cerf and most of his high-priced administrative team have never taught in urban schools. They haven’t lived in these neighborhoods. They are chasing feckless theories and political advantages while the lives of real people–children, parents, and teachers–are damaged.
Freda Barrow knows her community and she knows there is a high price to pay for loving that which can be so easily destroyed.
“You know, many of my old students come back to see me,” she says. “They come in and ask for advice or recommendations for jobs. They tell me about their families and how they want me to teach their children.”
And, because Freda loves photography, she has pictures of these students and their visits. Some break her heart. In January, brothers Brent and Keith Williams came to visit. Last month, Brent, 20, was murdered in a drive-by-shooting. A month earlier, Brent’s classmate in Ms. Barrow’s class, Rashawn Harrison, also was shot to death.
She tells a story of how, after these funerals, she was in a store and saw another young man she had taught years earlier. She began to cry and embraced him and whispered, “I’m just so glad you’re still alive.”
Barrow’s own children have been attacked and robbed but she hovered over them and, now that they are adults, she is more determined than ever to stay and fight for her neighborhood.
She takes risks. The other day, she appeared at a Newark school board meeting and spoke up against “One Newark” and “turnaround.” School employees have been suspended for less. Of course, Cerf missed his first meeting as superintendent and didn’t hear what she had to say–but, maybe, he will listen to the tape. It will do him more good than hours’ of meetings with his over-priced assistants.
Freda Barrow knows she can be punished–again–for speaking out against “One Newark” and “turnaround” and state control of Newark’s schools. But she tells a story about her own childhood in Syracuse, New York, that explains why she’s not afraid–not of her neighborhood, not of Christopher Cerf.
When she was a child, Syracuse was under a school desegregation order. Freda and many other black children were bused into white neighborhoods where they were not always welcome. The little girl was afraid.
“I hated that feeling of fear. I hated the feeling in your stomach–this coldness. Almost a pain. It was so real.”
So the little girl who would become Freda Barrow promised herself she would not let fear creep into her again. And to overcome that fear, this is what she does:
She teaches. All of us.