When Kids Walk Out of School, Who's Listening?

Recently, 2000 young people from all of Newark New Jersey's comprehensive and magnet high schools walked out of school at noon to protest the latest round of state appointed superintendent Cami Anderson's "school reform" that has destroyed neighborhood schools, reduced available resources including full time teachers, and touted charter schools for some, as the educational formula for all. They gathered at City Hall, and marched to block traffic on a state highway. By their sheer numbers, they stopped the regular flow of business in Newark. If not for school lock downs, threats, and use of security guards at some schools, there would have been even more students in protest.

But who listened? Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark certainly heard and supported the students. In his press release, as printed in online publication Blue Jersey, the Mayor said,

The district is in chaos. Schools are being denied supports they are entitled under the state's No Child Left Behind Waiver. Over the last four years some high schools have a new principal every year, some multiple principals in the same year. Newark has placed special education students in schools that do not have the services specified in their individualized education plans. There is a $35 million dollar budget deficit at the end this academic year and a projected $35 million dollar budget gap for 2015-2016 academic year. As both Newark's Chief executive and a 22-year educator in the Newark Public Schools, I am appalled at this situation.

Elected School Advisory Board Chairperson Ariagna Perello and other Board members were in the streets with the students, as were union officials, parent advocates, and a host of Newark leaders. The elected school Board was stripped of power by a state takeover in 1995, but nonetheless passed a resolution at an earlier student demonstration supporting the students' right to demonstrate without fear of threats and lock downs.

What about the media? The students generally received good press. The walk out was so large that several New Jersey and New York media were on hand. But one TV station focused on some vandalism at the end of the walkout, which was attributed without any proof to the students who walked out. However, Bob Braun's Ledger, the online newspaper that has consistently supported parent, student and union efforts to redefine "school reform," got it right when it said,

Happily, not angrily, but with the hope someone was finally paying attention, the kids, organized by the Newark Students Union, showed they could shut the city down to demand someone listen to their grievances about a school district that was underfunded, racially isolated, and mismanaged by state bureaucrats for 20 years.

Braun quoted two students who summed it up perfectly:

"We're worried about our future," said Nicauris Veras, a 16-year-old Shabazz junior. Her friend Grace Tyler, 17, also a junior, added: "We don't want to become a dumping ground for students who can't get into charters."

There is a popular misbelief that young people do not know what is good for them; that black and brown kids are the victims of teachers unions, local politicians and poverty; that well intentioned Newark parents and other school advocates don't have the knowledge to do for themselves, and therefore "experts" must come to Newark and show them the way.

But the young people who walked out of school did not do so to get a longer holiday weekend. They simply want an education that is good for them, all of them. Newark students have been saying, "We don't have enough teachers" and are being taught by substitutes." One student told me, "Sometimes we have substitutes for the substitutes". Students can no longer count on classes and activities in arts education, like music, visual art and drama. "There's nothing to make school interesting or fun", another student complained. At University High School, a magnet school that at one time ranked in prominence throughout the state in part because of its advanced course offerings, has gone from 19 advanced placement courses to now only 4. These students are bright, as well as others in the district, and now they're bored. And for the last two years, many students have been forced to travel to schools away from their neighborhoods in the name of "school choice", even though their real choice is to stay in their neighborhood, and be with friends and teachers they have come to love and respect. Despite state appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson's claim to the contrary, many more teenagers are dropping out of school because they refuse to cross gang lines and attend schools out of neighborhood.

Nobody has been listening to these and other complaints. Historically, people rebel when nobody listens. Look at the American Revolution, where the American people took up arms. But these students only walked out. Despite the threats that they wouldn't graduate, that they wouldn't be allowed to go to their proms, they took a serious step in support of their right to an education. Although they had the city on lock down, they called off the demonstration after about two hours and went home...waiting to see which adults would listen.

So what will happen next? The state of New Jersey is in charge and the ball is in Governor Christie's court, to act on student demands that Cami Anderson be replaced; and that school district disruption cease. The students do not want to see "Turnaround Schools" to be enacted in September of 2015, which is just a repeat of a program called "Renew Schools" which hasn't worked over a two-year period. In fact, student performance on standardized tests has gone down in most Renew Schools.

What will it take to get the Governor to listen?

Junius Williams is the author of the book, Unfinished Agenda, Urban Politics in the Era of Black Power (www.randomhouse.com) and the Director of the Abbott Leadership Institute, Rutgers University Newark