Newark activists to feds: Help us achieve genuine community schools

PULSELOGO

Just days after state-imposed schools superintendent Christopher Cerf and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka announced a joint, top-down program with the holders of what’s left of Mark Zuckerberg’s money to develop “community” schools in the city’s South Ward, a grass-roots organization based in the ward with a national focus–Parents United for Local School Education (PULSE-NJ)–wrote to  federal education secretary Arne Duncan to demand he help ensure genuine community schools are established. PULSE-NJ has filed a federal civil rights complaint against the state administration. PULSE-NJ’s letter follows:

 

Dear Secretary Duncan:

As you prepare to leave office after seven years, you are likely using your last few days to tie up loose ends and reflect on your tenure as the Secretary of Education for the United States of America. Perhaps you are even looking on your years with pride, and congratulating yourself for accomplishments. We are not sure if you have a performance review, but because you are charged to serve those in America’s public education system, we would like to provide you with a review of the effects your education policies have had on the people of Newark, New Jersey.

 

As parents in Newark, we would be remiss if we did not specifically speak to the devastating effects of policies like Race to the Top. Unfortunately, our children and community will be experiencing the residual effects of these policies for generations to come. The policies you supported caused harm in our community and your education experiment caused long-term trauma for our children.

 

The policies you supported caused harm in our community and your education experiment caused long-term trauma for our children.

 

A Newark parent stated, “Our children are anxiety-ridden. They have seen their neighborhood schools close down, and they do not know if the school they are currently attending will remain open. The children have had a hard time adjusting to new neighborhoods, new teachers and administrators. We try to calm their constant anxiety, but many of our children have been moved around two or three times and have seen the closures of the schools in their neighborhood. The lack of stability has contributed to the adverse childhood experiences of our children. This is how we define trauma.” There is plenty of research to support that the prevalence of traumatic life experiences in the first 18 years of a person’s life impacts not only brain development, but their overall well-being in their later years.

 Marginalized people in our country have been stripped of their agency, voice, dignity, and humanity. The state-sponsored and inflicted trauma on our people continues on through our education system.

 

In many ways, we should not be surprised. This is how we have come to know our United States of America; a country that experiments on its most marginalized, particularly Black, Native American, and Latino people. From the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, to the Contraceptive Trials of Puerto Rico, to the Indian Schools that sought to impose Euro-American education policies on Native Americans, marginalized people in our country have been stripped of their agency, voice, dignity, and humanity. The state-sponsored and inflicted trauma on our people continues on through our education system. Will we also look back at this time in history and identify it as a trauma point in the lives of Black and Brown people?

We see with your education policy that history is repeating itself. Different actors. Different stage. Same play.

 

Members and supporters of PULSE announcing the federal civil rights complaint filed against the state amdinistration of Newark schools, May, 2014.
Members and supporters of PULSE announcing the federal civil rights complaint filed against the state amdinistration of Newark schools, May, 2014.

In 2009, when Race to the Top took form, many educators, school districts, and politicians looked on the new policy with great expectations while others questioned the ways it would be implemented at the local level. It did not take long for us to realize how quickly the community would be excluded from the implementation of the policy. It was as if the community was seen with disdain, and treated that way at every juncture. Schools were closed, and charters opened. Schools were “turned-around,” “renewed” and “transformed” leaving our students without their teachers, school leaders, and the support systems that were initially in place when they started the school.

 

From New Orleans, to Chicago, to Philadelphia, to Detroit, and to Newark, these policies and reforms have disproportionately affected Black students and their families.

The people in our community were moved around with no thought or consideration for the relationships that were built or destroyed.

The people in our community were moved around with no thought or consideration for the relationships that were built or destroyed. This disregard for the relationships our children have formed in their schools and in their community is indicative of the way that our country values the education of Black and Brown children.

 

Secretary Duncan, history will remember this moment in our country’s past as one that once again contributed to the plight of African-Americans on a level that rivals that of Jim Crow. Our nation is experiencing school and community segregation levels that are at an all-time high. Our mass incarceration level has been fueled by the school-to-prison pipeline, and the overuse, misuse, and obsession with standardized tests that are disrupting the natural flow of true authentic learning, while labeling our children and communities “failures”. These same tests scores are also being used to justify the closing of schools in areas that are highly concentrated with students from low-income Black and Brown communities. It is a devastating cycle.

Too many politicians and leaders treat low-income Black and Brown people and our communities like holiday gifts given to them to play with.

 

A PULSE flier
A PULSE flier

It is not enough to say, “I did what I thought was right for them.” or “My heart was in the right place,” or even “I had good intentions,” because those “good intentions” have left us hurting, divided, torn, broken, and traumatized. Too many politicians and leaders treat low-income Black and Brown people and our communities like holiday gifts given to them to play with.

 

We all recall being a child and opening our gifts during the holidays or special occasions. We all remember what it was like playing constantly with that one particular toy, yet abandoning them once we grew bored with the excitement that toy brought us. The people of Newark are not action figures or toys. We are actual living human beings with an array of feelings, histories, identities, and ideas, who form human connections and relationships.

Collaborating with billionaires to funnel public funds into private companies and charter management organizations has exploited and destabilized our communities and schools. Race to the Top favored charter school expansion, top-down decision making, high-stakes accountability, school closures, and the influx of unqualified teachers with little to no experience in education or familiarity with our children or community.

 

We have been left with the mess your policies have created for us which allowed Superintendent Cami Anderson free range to control the fate of our children, their teachers, and administrators. Collaborating with billionaires to funnel public funds into private companies and charter management organizations has exploited and destabilized our communities and schools. Race to the Top favored charter school expansion, top-down decision making, high-stakes accountability, school closures, and the influx of unqualified teachers with little to no experience in education or familiarity with our children or community.

We are demanding our parents be allowed to create the schools that we need and want. History has taught us that change happens from the bottom up.

 

Although our best efforts to halt much of the damage were met with disdain, we are demanding our parents be allowed to create the schools that we need and want. History has taught us that change happens from the bottom up. To think otherwise would be negligent, and at worst hubristic. Anything short of true community, parent, and student engagement is bound to fail and goes against the principles of democracy.

 

Secretary Duncan, before you leave office, we are asking you to acknowledge the important role that community members should play in the creation of education policies. As a community, we have been advocating for the creation of three Sustainable Community Schools in the South Ward of Newark, but very few decision-makers have listened to us. As a result, we were forced to file a Title VI complaint demanding that your Office for Civil Rights investigate the One Newark Plan, which was imposed on us by our former Mayor and former Superintendent. That complaint was clear in declaring that we are not simply asking for Sustainable Community Schools, but rather to be included in the design and implementation of any education policies that will affect our children.

 

Any resolution reached without us at the table is unsatisfactory. Any announcement made by our school district without our prior input is similarly unsatisfactory.

 

PULSENJ's Sharon Smith
PULSENJ’s Sharon Smith, the writer of the letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan

Today, we ask that you honor our concerns and our complaint in a way that allows us to create our schools for our community. Any resolution reached without us at the table is unsatisfactory. Any announcement made by our school district without our prior input is similarly unsatisfactory. We are counting on you to be on the right side of history and the right side of democratic principles. Use this as an opportunity to right some of those wrongs.

 

Sincerely,

Parents Unified for Local School Education (PULSENJ)

 

cc: Loretta Lynch, Attorney General of the United States

Catherine Lhamon, Assistant Secretary, Office for Civil Rights

7 comments

  1. booklady

    The PULSE letter is eloquent. It should be shared widely. Copies to NJ State Board Ed members (who may not read this blog); NJ lege; congressional reps.

    Is the author the Sharon Smith who was principal of Rosa Parks HS in Paterson, or a different person?

    Will Arne Duncan’s next job be NCAA coordinator of basketball student tutors? Could he do that job from Chicago while his children attend U Chicago Lab School–no CCSS, PARCC, SBAC there …

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