On February 17th, mayoral candidate Ras Baraka unveiled his Blueprint to Achieve Excellence in Newark’s Schools in a public forum at the Newark campus of Rutgers University. Just before the meeting, Baraka met privately with about a dozen education activists and bloggers to discuss the many issues the families and educators in Newark are faced with—and I was fortunate to be part of that session.
In both the closed meeting and the public forum, Councilman Baraka’s central message was consistent and clear: that strong schools are the “linchpin of a community,” and that they must be preserved and protected in order for a community to function properly and thrive.
But according to Baraka (and many others in the city), Newark is being torn apart by State Superintendent Cami Anderson, a Chris Christie appointee whose controversial “One Newark” plan is being challenged by students, parents, community members, and educational and legal experts who question Anderson’s qualifications, authority, and motives.
Just over a month ago, the Governor praised Anderson’s reforms in Newark during his State of the State address:
In our largest school system, in Newark, we have brought in a new organization and new resources, not only in the form of state aid but in collaboration with parents, teachers, and community leaders on the ground. One result – we negotiated a historic contract with the teacher’s union and delivered real merit pay alongside increased teacher involvement.
Most importantly we want to encourage innovation while listening to the specific needs of our urban communities. It’s the reason why we have empowered our superintendents in Newark and Camden to make choices that work best for their kids, their parents and their schools.
In Newark, that superintendent is Cami Anderson.
Cami has moved to pay the best teachers, to stop actions that are failing kids, to empower 50 new principals, create cooperation between public schools and charter schools and reorganize the school systems’ structure to focus on putting students, schools and parents first.
But many others, including students, parents, educators, and grassroots organizations formed specifically to call attention to Anderson’s reforms, tell a very different tale of the state of the city’s schools. The district has been under state control for 19 years, and Baraka says he will “fight vociferously” to restore local control and ensure the democratic process is restored in Newark. After all, the job of a superintendent of public schools, he says, is to improve public schools, not close them.
Baraka describes the culture Anderson has created as one in which “dissent is punished” (recently, five principals were suspended and the President of the PTO was banned from his daughter’s school for speaking against the “One Newark” plan) and schools are closed arbitrarily and without any citizen input.
Anderson has also launched what many perceive as attacks on unionized teachers during her tenure in Newark. Just today, Bob Braun reported that Anderson plans to ask Commissioner Cerf, who will leave his post to take a job with Amplify at the end of this month, to grant her a “waiver or equivalency,” which would allow her to lay off teachers with no regard for due process or seniority.
Anderson’s policies are obviously an extension of Chris Christie’s education reforms, and many Newarkers take issue with the Governor’s September statement that accompanied his announcement that he planned to renew Anderson’s contract:
“She’s done a great job, and I don’t care about the community criticism,” Christie said. “We run the school district in Newark, not them.”
Baraka, who was a teacher before he became principal of Central High School in 2007, says the the “One Newark” plan is more like a “one-person plan,” since Newark stakeholders had no input in its creation. “One Newark,” designed by outsiders who have little experience educating children and unsupported by evidence of their effectiveness, he says, weakens the Newark community–and, in turn, weaken schools.
In response to Anderson’s reforms, which many have described as “dictatorial,” Baraka—along with a team of experts—has developed his Blueprint to Achieve Excellence in Newark’s Schools that he says will move the city’s schools in the right direction. The plan, which is specific and comprehensive–and which Baraka shared with a standing-room-only crowd in the Essex room at Rutgers University’s Paul Robeson Campus Center–details an educational approach that is drastically different from Anderson’s top-down directives.
The first member of Baraka’s education team to speak was Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, a former teacher and Newark Teachers Union officer and the current Chairperson of the Newark Board of Education. Baskerville-Richardson is staunch in her opposition to what she calls Anderson’s “period of destruction” in Newark’s schools, and insisted in Baraka’s public forum that the standardized testing driving many of Anderson’s reforms has “helped no one but the testing industry.” As a lifelong Newark resident, Baskerville-Richardson understand just how important it is for a district to have control over its hiring, facilities, and curriculum; under her leadership, the local control over fiscal management was restored to the Newark school board.
Dr. Lauren Wells, another member of Baraka’s education team, is a former teacher who holds a B.A. in English from Temple University, a Master’s degree in Educational Leadership from Columbia, and a Ph.D. in Education from the UCLA. During the public forum, Dr. Wells described the “experiential gaps” that plague students who come from high poverty areas. Citing the popular reformy claim that poverty isn’t an “excuse” for poor academic performance, Dr. Wells claimed that because we know how poverty affects academic achievement, we have a responsibility to do something about it. Wells compared a city to a living system, and noted that if an organ isn’t working properly in a person’s body, the entire system is affected; the same, she said, goes for a city like Newark. If the school system isn’t functioning properly, the community suffers; likewise, the poverty that plagues the city affects the school system. So to improve the school system, Wells said, officials from all city departments need to work together to “weave the city’s resources in a tapestry” that works in a coordinated way and in a common direction to develop a comprehensive plan that will improve the living and academic conditions in Newark.
The third member of Baraka’s education team is Dr. Janice Johnson Dias, a graduate of Brandeis University and Temple University and a professor of Sociology at John Jay College. Her extensive work with community and social service organizations gives her a unique perspective about the ways in which social influences shape a student’s educational experiences, and this work is reflected in Baraka’s education policy. Johnson Dias began her remarks by contending that although many people believe that one of the best ways a person can avoid avoid being poor is to get a good education, but she pointed out that there is much dissent surrounding what actually constitutes a “good” education. For some, she says, “good” means that a student was obedient; for others, it means that a student came to school every day; still others define a “good” experience as one in which a student pushes himself beyond prescribed boundaries. But such dissent is, according to Johnson Dias, the root of conflicting ideologies regarding the best ways to improve Newark’s schools.
Johnson Dias described the ways in which a student’s “sense of relatedness” matters in terms of his academic achievement, and noted that when minority children feel animus in the very environment that’s meant to encourage their development, their sense of self-worth—and ability to achieve at their potential—suffers greatly.
To address this problem, Johnson Dias said that parents and community members must create an environment of learning that extends beyond the walls of a school building. She insisted that schools must create systems which recognize and celebrate that there’s excellence in all children in some form—not just in the areas that can be tested on a standardized test. (When a test is politicized to convey the message that anyone who fails it is dumb, students internalize their results and begin to believe they’re dumb, she says.)
Councilman Baraka was the last to speak at the public forum, and his message echoed those of the members of his education team: that in order for children to succeed academically, they need to find support in their schools and in their communities. The mayor of a city, he says, is responsible for ensuring strong neighborhoods—and closing schools destabilizes neighborhoods. Ergo, Baraka’s education plan isn’t limited to improving conditions in schools: it extends to include the entire Newark community.
Though his detailed plan is available here, Baraka used the February 17th public forum to discuss his plans to:
- Implement programs to improve literacy throughout the community (parents, grandparents, etc.), including public housing, senior centers, hospitals, etc.
- Recognize that parents have “enough sense” to know what their children need, so they need to be engaged in discussions about schools BEFORE decisions are made–not after
- Appreciate—and not belittle—people’s experiences to work with people who know and understand their community’s needs better than outsiders
- Establish incentives for teachers to live in the city
- Ensure that children have access to a universal preschool program
- Stop all of Anderson’s initiatives, including school closures and charter expansion, until the superintendent provides any type of documentation that such measures even work.
Ras Baraka’s Blueprint to Achieve Excellence in Newark’s Schools was created by education experts who understand that after 19 years of failed state control in Newark, something needs to change–and that change should be driven by people who know and understand the Newark community’s needs. It’s supremely ironic that the current administration’s “One Newark” plan is creating a great divide within the city–one that’s causing great unrest in an already-volatile area–and Baraka insists that the initiatives detailed in his blueprint will make him the “real education mayor” that Newark children and families so desperately need.