Watching young Newarkers march through the streets demanding educational justice animated every revolutionary fiber of my being. “This is what democracy looks like,” students proclaimed as they took to the streets. I was proud, to say the least. Here was a group of young people, Newark students, articulating visions of justice and engineering pathways to freedom—all while suffering under the yoke of an oppressive (mis)leadership, all while living in a society that renders their lives, their bodies and their education less important than that of whiter, wealthier peers.
It was Wednesday September 10, and I had a decision to make. I could teach as a substitute and make a little over $100—money used to pay bills and sustain myself—or, I could participate in the student walkout. Since becoming a Newark Public Schools (NPS) employee, I’ve witnessed firsthand the gradual deterioration of the city’s now-crumbling school system. I saw students frustrated with the lack of resources, parents disillusioned with broken promises, and an entire community enraged by the dubious direction in which their city’s schools are headed. When the call came asking me if I could sub, I thought to myself: the money is important, but the movement is imperative.
I joined the students and walked out.
Newark, New Jersey’s largest city, boasts its largest school district. Due to so-called poor academic performance, including low test scores and high drop-out rates, the state “intervened” in the district nearly twenty years ago with the promise that improvement would follow. It did not. But community distrust did. The volatile political climate churning under the city’s surface during the 1995 state takeover eventually came to a head, erupting into chaos when Superintendent Cami Anderson was appointed in 2011—the same year I was hired.
On December 8, 2013, Anderson announced a wide-scale “restructuring” of NPS under the auspices of an initiative dubbed “One Newark”. The plan was to create “100 excellent schools” by closing, “renewing” or charterizing a portion of the city’s public schools. Despite corporate backing, including $100 million from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, “One Newark” was met with sharp criticism. In fact, four principals were suspended for allegedly criticizing the plan at a public forum, 77 clergy members have called for its moratorium, and a national coalition of community groups filed a civil rights complaint with the Department of Justice and Department of Education arguing that the plan disproportionately affects African-American students. Newly elected Mayor Ras Baraka, an outspoken proponent of public education and former principal of Central High School, joined the critics when he remarked: “It’s a one-person plan not a ‘One Newark’ plan.”