The state-run administration of the Newark public schools doesn’t know how to keep principals at Barringer High School. It doesn’t know how to provide the students with schedules, courses, teachers, desks, or even edible lunches. On a day, like yesterday, when temperatures fell below freezing, it didn’t even know how to supply heat. But it sure developed some creative ways to prevent students from joining a planned walkout to protest conditions in Newark’s oldest high school.
“You’re keeping them from coming outside,” shouted Jose Leonardo, the vice president of the Newark Student Union (NSU), in a confrontation with Twanda Jones, a Newark special police officer who was, well, helping to keep Barringer students from joining a student rally outside the school. “No, they are free to go,” insisted Jones. “If they want to go, it’s on them, but they can go.”
What Jones wasn’t saying was that, for Barringer students to join the protest against problems both at the school and through the Newark public school system, they would have to overcome some pretty sizable obstacles.
“Someone physically grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go,” said Matthew Rodriguez, a 15-year-old sophomore. “They were telling me not to go outside.” He identified the school worker as an interventionist.
That wasn’t all. Barringer administrators conducted a school-wide presentation in the auditorium during which the students were told not to go outside. Teachers warned them not to go outside. Security officers stood by the doors and ordered them to stay inside.
One especially clever trick was telling the students they would not be able to return and retrieve their cell phones if they left. Barringer students are required to check their cell phones before entering class. “A lot of students need their cell phones for their safety,” explained Axel Maldonado, a 16-year-old junior.
Amanda Dominquez, the leader of the Barringer Students Union, said she was called into the school’s central office and told to call off the planned demonstration. She said the principal of Barringer STEAM, Angela Mincy, and Brad Haggerty, an assistant school superintendent.
“They told me they were correcting the problems at Barringer and we should not join the protest,” said Amanda. Let’s face it. It took a lot of will power for young Amanda to resist the powerful people from the Newark public schools. A lot of will power and courage. And frustration with the conditions that none of the high-paid adults seem to be able to solve.
The students received major support from NJ Communities United, whose organizers were on hand to remind students of their rights. For nearly a year, the organization has been in the forefront of helping students expose the problems caused by state control of Newark schools.
No one denies Barringer is a mess and has been a mess since it opened for the new school year. The students lost weeks of instructional time because teachers were not hired and schedules were not set.
Just before the school year opened, Cami Anderson, the former Cory Booker campaign worker appointed by Gov. Chris Christie to run the Newark schools, fired one of two principals in the school. The other quit. Because Anderson has invested so much power in the principals who support her–and she keeps in their jobs–the loss of two principals meant staff assignments were not yet firmed up before the school year began. Course schedules were not completed. The school opened to chaos. And it has remained in chaos ever since.
Anderson herself admitted as much before a state school board meeting earlier this month. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka visited the school to hear complaints from the students, some of whom produced a video to show how bad conditions were at the school.
But the problems at Barringer have not been corrected. Help promised by acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe and his phantom, “working group” never materialized.
The only Newark residents supporting the Barringer students and their parents are those running the NSU and other community groups. Some of the community leaders who were there supporting the Barringer students–Sharon Smith of People United for Local School Education (PULSE), Wilhelmina Holder of the Senior High School Council, and Donna Jackson. Dr. Lauren Wells, the chief school officer for the city and an adviser to Baraka, was there as an observer.
Many of the students and adults traveled to Washington last week to confront Cami Anderson who had left town to give a speech at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, DC. When the students and community residents showed up, Anderson fled to a different part of the building to tape her comments and audience members were told the program had been canceled.
“I’ve been coming here almost every day since September and they still haven’t solved all the problems here,” said Holder.
The demonstration began just before noon with about 30 NSU members marching in front of school entrances calling for students to come out. Security officers and, later Newark police, moved them away from the entrances and from the school parking lot.
Despite the efforts of the school administration, about 50 students left Barringer and joined the young men and women outside. The group moved to the intersection of Park Avenue and Parker Street and closed it down for more than an hour. Newark police officers diverted traffic and did not try to stop them.