Every time Newark shows up on the national radar—from Cory Booker’s celebrity turn to Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to Ras Baraka’s victory in the mayoral race earlier this month—its schools have been in the spotlight. In Mayor-elect Baraka, the school reform project inaugurated under Booker and Governor Chris Christie has met its most formidable opponent yet. But despite Baraka’s win, not to mention a flurry of sit-ins, walk-outs, protests and pickets, the transformation of the school system into a showcase of neoliberal ideas about education is unlikely to stop anytime soon.
That’s troubling news for students in the district schools, such as those at the Hawthorne Avenue School.
Hawthorne could have been a model for urban education. The Newark, New Jersey, K–8 school has raised its test scores in each of the last three years. The hallways that teachers describe as “chaos” four years ago are now quiet, save occasional bursts of laughter. Its performance on last year’s tests, on which it met all state benchmarks, compelled an assistant superintendent to make a personal visit to congratulate the faculty.
So the community was stunned when the district leveled the educational equivalent of a death sentence on the school.
At a public forum last December, the Chris Christie–appointed superintendent Cami Anderson announced that about a quarter of Newark’s schools would be closed, repurposed, consolidated or otherwise transformed. Hawthorne would lose grades 5–8, and two outside operators would assume management of younger grades. Every teacher would have to reapply.
“It won’t be Hawthorne anymore,” says Grace Sergio, a Hawthorne parent association leader whose eighth-grade son plays basketball and often stays at school till well after six. “This is a village.”
Since principal Grady James took the reins in 2010, the school has experienced a renaissance. “It was failing badly when he first started,” says Sergio. “He’s turned the school around.”
Housed in a stately though decaying four-story brick schoolhouse built in 1895, Hawthorne draws its enrollment from the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Newark’s impoverished South Ward. Nearly 90 percent of its pupils are African-American and 94 percent are economically disadvantaged. Although less than a third of its students score proficient in reading, Hawthorne’s growth puts it in the ninety-fourth percentile of comparable schools statewide. Its roster has grown consistently for three years.
Now the school is in limbo. “Teachers don’t know where they’re going, students don’t know where they’re going,” says Sergio.
Why has this school, whose academic gains outstrip those of every school in its local peer group, been targeted for turnover? Parents have lobbied officials, penned letters and protested to get an answer, but Superintendent Anderson hasn’t relented. “She doesn’t know what our kids need,” says Sergio.
The upheaval at Hawthorne comes amidst one of the most dizzying spells of school reform a city has seen since Hurricane Katrina turned New Orleans into a laboratory for market-based reforms.
In January, the district suspended Hawthorne’s principal and four others after they inveighed against One Newark, the reorganization plan. Superintendent Anderson’s appearance at community forums generates such protest that she’s stopped attending them altogether. Reforms under her tenure have spurred marches and student walk-outs. In April, seventy-seven faith leaders signed a letter urging Anderson to halt One Newark for “producing irreversible changes and fomenting widespread outrage.”