Sara Da Silva-Ferreira stands at the fence at the back of the property members of her family have owned for years in Newark’s Ironbound. She looks past the rough chain-links right into a school playground she knows well because she played there as a student and now her daughter Gabrielle attends school there, too. Her cousins attended the large elementary school as well. The familiar sight of the playground and the tall school walls looming behind it makes Sara sad and angry now because she has been told for two years that her son Julian cannot attend the same school. The Oliver Street School.
“I’ve never had any problems,” says Ferreira who works as a private bank security guard. “But now my son cannot go to the same school her sister attends. I don’t understand.”
This is called “school choice” in the Newark public schools, part of the “One Newark Enrolls” plan that disperses children throughout the city instead of allowing them to attend their neighborhood school.
This is called “school choice”–and those words have become a political slogan for Chris Christie, the governor who proclaimed himself the “decider” over the Newark schools and is running for president.
But there’s a catch. The choice of where Julian Ferriera can attend is not the parent’s choice. It is a choice made by some bureaucrat, probably imported from New York City, in an administration headed by Montclair entrepreneur Christopher Cerf who became Newark school superintendent as part of a deal that, its supporters say, will eventually bring local control back to the Newark schools.
Christopher Cerf–the same man who decided years ago to rearrange the enrollment patterns in Newark as a $500,000 consultant–because he is a champion of charter schools and the new enrollment plan would close neighborhood schools and open new charters.
But even if local control does come to Newark, it won’t come in not in time for Julian to attend the school located behind his backyard. The school his sister attends. That is mother attended. That his uncles and cousins attended.
Julian’s mother doesn’t have a lot of interest in the politics surrounding the Newark public schools nor much time to get involved. Sara and her husband Peter, a mechanic, often work six days a week to pay the rent on their apartment in the four-family where they and other members of the family live. They leave early in the morning, long before school opens and rely on Sara’s mother to get the children off to school. Sara and Peter Ferreira just needed a pre-school for their four-year-old son and they just assumed Julian could attend the same pre-school that welcomed Gabrielle three years ago.
“I just registered Gabrielle at school and they took her in, no problem,” says Sara. Gabrielle is now 8 and a second-grader at Oliver Street.
Last year, Sara tried to register Julian for the pre-K-3 program at the school behind her home. He was not admitted. She appealed the decision–the appeal was ignored. This April, she checked the Newark Public School website every day to see when registration for the pre-K-4 program opened. As soon as it did, she filled out the form on line and went to the school. She thought there was no way Julian would be rejected.
But he was.
“How is it possible the class could fill up so quickly?” Sara wants to know. She says she knows children from other neighborhoods are attending Oliver Street–even children from other towns. But she doesn’t want to ruin things for other parents. She wants her son to attend the school his sister attends, the school right behind their home.
Sara was told to report to the enrollment center run by the Newark Public Schools on Montgomery Street. She was told to bring financial information–including her last three pay stubs–and proof of medical insurance. She was never told why.
“But then I received a letter saying Julian was on he waiting list,” she says.
She sought help from her councilman and member of the state Assembly. The politicians told her there was nothing they could do. She also sought help from the Newark Teachers Union and was referred to #ParentPower. Frankie Adao from that group told this site about her story.
In the past, former superintendent Cami Anderson would exploit the pain of people like Ferreiras to say her enrollment plan was working. It was creating demand for good schools and that is what it was supposed to do.
But it also was destroying neighborhood schools–and certainly not just in the Ironbound. All last summer, parents complained about how their children had to find ways of getting to schools across town. Neighborhood schools like Bragaw Avenue in the South Ward were closed and turned into charter schools.
When neighborhood schools close, neighborhoods disintegrate and die. Neighborhood schools are part of the glue that keeps neighborhoods together–and neighborhoods keep cities alive. Much of what this struggle is about has to do with the destruction of neighborhoods and the gentrification of the city–the conversion of real estate to money for people who live in places like Montclair and New York City.
Some people believe the Ironbound is a wealthy neighborhood. It’s not. It’s a gritty, working-class area where men and women like Peter and Sara Ferreira struggle to survive. Just the same way as men and women in the north and central and west and south wards struggle to survive in the largest city in New Jersey, a state dominated by suburban politics and politicians.
There are no great lawns there, no tree-lined boulevards, no enormous playgrounds. A lot of brick and siding multiple-family homes. But, until recently, the Ironbound and other Newark neighborhoods did have one benefit suburban children enjoyed–local, neighborhood schools within safe walking distance of their homes.
After the deal to bring local control back to Newark–the school system has been run by the state since 1995–was announced, Mayor Ras Baraka called for an immediate end to “One Newark” and a return to neighborhood schools.
But “One Newark” endures. If it lasts a few more years–Cerf has a three-year contract–neighborhood schools might completely vanish from the city. Local control will mean authority over a school system dominated by charter schools and public schools far from the children’s homes. Untangling that will be a challenge.
Sara Ferreira understands she is caught up in the midst of turmoil that affects virtually all public school children and parents, no matter what ward they live in. But she worries first about Julian and Gabrielle.
`I want them to go to school here, near our home, in our neighborhood,” she says.
But Sara Ferriera lives in Newark–and so she can’t have choice.