Julio Cortex / AP Photo

NJ students refuse to end sit-in protest at superintendent's office

The young activists want Newark's schools chief to meet with them or resign over a program they say is racially biased

As their sit-in at the office of their schools superintendent went into its third day, student activists in Newark, N.J. are firm in their demands that the superintendent should either speak with them about a controversial new program or resign.

The eight protesters, members of the Newark Student Union (NSU), say they will not leave until Superintendent Cami Anderson meets with them to discuss her One Newark program, which was implemented in September 2014, two and a half years after she was appointed by the state to run Newark’s struggling schools. 

One Newark requires the city's students, from kindergarten through high school, to reapply for acceptance at 100 different Newark schools, including some charter schools and non-traditional public schools. An algorithm decides which schools the students will attend.

Anderson says that the program will increase schooling options for students. The student activists say that the program forces them to attend schools in inconvenient locations and devalues the rights of black and Latino classmates.

The protestors say they will remain in the offices until Anderson agrees to meet with them and attend a meeting of the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board, a parent group. Short of that, they’d like to see her resign.

“The only way we will leave this occupation is if she attends the advisory board meeting or she meets with us, or both. We most likely want both,” said Thais Marques, a community organizer with New Jersey Communities United (NJCU), a local non-profit group that aims to empower low- and middle-income people.

Two members of NJCU have joined the protesters to assist them in their action.

The protesters say that the program puts a heavy burden on disadvantaged black and Latino households that do not have the means to commute to schools far from where they live. They also say the program prevents them them from attending predominantly white schools.

“We definitely find this to be a racial issue,” Marques said. “Newark is one of the most segregated cities in the country, and the One Newark plan only exacerbates this kind of segregation.”

“The algorithm that Cami Anderson uses only separates black and brown students and puts them in worse schools in comparison to their counterparts,” Marques added.

Marques said Anderson never consulted communities on the program, which applies to students in kindergarten through high school.

“She comes in here like a colonizer and tells us what is best for us without engaging in the community,” Marques said. “She believes that her plan will be a savior to Newark but doesn’t address the real problem, which is lack of access to resources and housing.”

Fellow protester Kristin Cowkaniuk, 18, a senior at Science Park High School, said One Newark forces students to wake up very early for class or risk coming in late, which disrupts other students.

Cowkaniuk said that one of her relatives must juggle rides every morning to drop off all her kids at different schools.

In separate meetings on Thursday, the protesters met with both Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and Anderson’s chief of staff, Vanessa Rodriguez.

Baraka offered his support to the students, Marques said. He wants Newark to regain control of the city’s school system, according to a New York Times op-ed he wrote last year.

A judge handed control of Newark Public Schools (NPS) to the state in 1995 after the school system was found to be plagued with poor performance and corruption. In 1994, the Supreme Court ruled that failing schools represented a violation of students' rights to equal protection under the Constitution, spurring the power transfer. 

Rodriguez told the protesters that she would convey their demand for a meeting to Anderson, said Marques, but could not promise that one would take place.

The protesters arrived Tuesday night at 8:30 p.m. and haven't left since. In letters delivered to parents Wednesday, school officials said they are providing food, water and bathroom breaks to the determined students, but that parents needed to pick up their kids right away.

Paul Karr, spokesman for NJCU, said parents received “repeated” phone calls from NPS and received the letter from a police officer at their doorsteps. Karr said the language was designed to intimidate parents. It’s not clear how the standoff will end.

“The endgame is to get Cami Anderson to resign and restore local control over public schools,” said Karr. “We know these are lofty demands, but the community in Newark has been forced to resort to civil disobedience.”

Attempts to reach Brittany Parmley, chief spokeswoman for NPS, were unsuccessful. She told local news channel WABC that the students had chosen a place for protest that is “not the appropriate forum.”

The 2014-2015 school year is the first year for One Newark. Anderson promoted the program as a way to increase options for parents and students. "You should have options for great schools in your neighborhood or ward," Anderson said in 2013, reported. "How do we get to that day faster and in every ward? We’re jump-starting change."

Karr rejected the notion that choice is behind the program. “It’s not about choice,” Karr said. “It’s about corporatizing our public schools after stripping Newark of our democratic right to control our school system.”

Titu Brown, national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance, which filed a complaint in 2014 with federal civil rights officials charging that One Newark disadvantages minority students, said race still plays a major role in how the United States educates its youth.

Brown said that students at public schools in affluent areas don’t have to see their education shuffled around from one facility to another. Rather, schools in well-to-do parts of major cities — often mostly white — have the resources needed to maintain small class sizes and put kids on track to college.

“Education in America is still separate and unequal,” Brown said.

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