A group of parents and students in Newark, New Jersey, boycotted the first day of school on Thursday to protest a new system that reorganized the state-run district this year.
One Newark, unveiled last December, gives students the option of attending a school besides the one in their local neighborhood. It has also expanded charter schools in the district, while consolidating or repurposing other schools. The plan is currently being investigated the U.S. Department of Education over claims that it has a disproportionally negative impact on minority students.
Some parents also think that state-appointed District Superintendent Cami Anderson did not solicit enough input from community members in making the plan, and others have claimed that the new transportation system created by the plan is disorganized and unsafe. Anderson as repeatedly disputed the charge that community stakeholders were not involved in the development of One Newark.
Tuesday's action was part of a series of protests and petitions that have been ongoing since reorganization was announced. Newark has 40,000 students, and is one of the state’s lowest performing districts. In 2013, for example, Newark had a 68 percent graduation rate, compared to 88 percent in the state.
Neither activists nor school officials had hard numbers Thursday on exactly how many children stayed home, though Anderson said she did not see high rates of absenteeism and thought the school day went smoothly. Prior to the boycott, hundreds of families committed to participating in the protest, according to press releases from the organizers, Parents Unified for Local School Education (PULSE).
Students participating in the boycott could attend one of three "Freedom Schools," where volunteers gave children instruction, the New Jersey Star-Ledger reported.
In a press release for the boycott, Johnnie Lattner, a co-founder of PULSE, said that activists are boycotting schools because “we have used every organizing tool available to us.”
“Today we make a stand against Cami Anderson dividing, destroying, dismissing, dismantling, and disrespecting parents, students, teachers, and community. We say no to the One Newark Plan,” said Lattner.
Yvonne Malone, who pulled her 12-year-old son out of school on Thursday, told HuffPost that she participated in the boycott because she takes issue with the fact that One Newark expands charter schools in the district. Malone's son attends a charter school, but she said she wishes he didn't.
“Because of lack of resources, lack of protection for these children, I was forced to pull him out [of traditional public school],” Malone said. “Pull him out of a school that should be right for him, should be made equal for him.”
Malone also said she thinks the district should return to local control. Newark schools have been under state control since 1995.
“We have to boycott to say that we want local control, we want communication and we want to halt One Newark,” said Malone. “The district is failing and the schools are failing.”
However, Anderson said she hopes that One Newark will directly combat chronic failure in the district.
“I really hope we get to a place where we are looking to find solutions as opposed to exacerbating challenges. I am disappointed in the amount of misinformation being actively spread,” Anderson told HuffPost. “I don’t think preserving the past is an acceptable stance. I think we have to act boldly.”
Next Thursday and Friday, the student activist group Newark Students Union, which has repeatedly protested One Newark and Cami Anderson, plans to take further action against the reorganization with a school "shut down." On Thursday, members of the group plan to rally students to go to a park. There, they will provide classes about student rights and the history of the student movement, said Roberto Cabanas, a lead organizer with New Jersey Communities United, a grassroots community organization that provides funding and organizing space for the student group. Then on Friday, the activists plan to bring protesters directly to district headquarters, where they will demand Anderson’s resignation and a return to local control of the district.
In response, Anderson emphasized that she does not think students should be spending more time away from the classroom.
“Time in class is critical. Our kids are critically off track,” she said.