Now with their own union, Newark students are resisting neoliberal reforms in their city. What can we expect from these powerful young people next?
By Raven Rakia
On Tuesday, May 20, 2014, the Newark Students Union (NSU) called for a rally on 2 Cedar Street, at the Board of Education building. As their supporters rallied outside, nine high school students from the NSU entered the building where the Board of Education was holding a meeting and staged a sit-in. As they slipped Cami Anderson, the superintendent, a list of their demands and sat down on the floor of the meeting, the nine students declared they weren’t leaving until their demands were met. The four demands read as follows: (1) Cami Anderson’s immediate resignation (2) Local control over the education system (3) Public schools to be fairly and fully funded and (4) All schools remain open.
Back in December, the NPS administration issued the “One Newark” plan: a complete restructuring of Newark’s public schools to take place in time for the 2014-2015 school year. Under the slogan, “100 excellent schools,” they describe the plan as a “community-wide agenda to ensure all students are in excellent schools and thriving communities.” In reality, the One Newark plan is a top-down approach orchestrated at the state level, which exercises complete control over public schools. Under the plan, some public schools will be closed, others will be turned into charters, and yet other schools will face a complete staff overhaul with potential layoffs.
On Tuesday, the Newark students and their supporters effectively shut down the Board meeting. Cami Anderson and other individuals from the NPS administration left the building, although Rashon Hassan and Donald Jackson from the Board came back and took the time to speak to the students. The next day, Anderson released an official statement, where she said while she is “supportive of students expressing their opinions,” she accused the sit-in as being “coached by adults” and said the students refused her offer to meet with them. In the Newark Students Union response, they asserted that “autonomy is a really important word to our union and it is something that we all possess. Thus, we were not coached by adults,” and the “shut down and sit in has been planned strategically and has been a personal decision amongst every student that participated.” According to the NSU, they took a more direct approach this time because they continue to be ignored by the administration. Despite, signing up to speak at the community section of every board meeting and organizing “successful walkouts, boycotts, rallies and protests,” the administration has still pushed through with the One Newark plan.
Explaining why the Newark Students organized the occupation, Jose Leonardo (a high school student in Newark and member of the NSU) said, “We decided to do this as a form of escalation to our previous event, which was a district-wide walkout that happened last month. We wanted to send a clear message that would strongly impact her image, and get her and each of her puppets to talk and address what this city really needs…We wanted the cries of the community to echo in their heads.”
24 hours later, the nine Newark students left the building with a promised meeting set up with David Hespe, State Education Commissioner. However, the Newark Students were not satisfied. After meeting with the commissioner, Newark Students Union President Kristin Towkaniuk, said “I think they held a meeting just so they could say they held a meeting” and that their demands were “brushed aside.” The occupation was the latest in a series of protests that have been taking place since the plan was released, six months ago. Beginning with community meetings, the resistance has grown and the tactics have increased to more direct action. There have also been attempts to crackdown on the growing dissent.
Community meetings to discuss the Newark Plan and gain local control of schools have been happening on a regular basis since January. During a community meeting on January 15th, five principals from the South Ward spoke to their community about years of budget cuts and lack of resources in their schools. The community meeting was organized by then-South Ward Council Member Ras Baraka for community members to share their thoughts and concerns about the One Newark Plan. South Ward, a predominantly Black and Latino neighborhood, will be the most affected by the plan — it is the district with the highest number of schools being closed or turning into charters.
One principal from the South Ward asserted that, “We’ve been under attack for years, before [the One Newark plan] even started. Our resources have been taken. Everything that could have done to make us not function. Teachers switched constantly. You have good teachers get taken out and given other teachers.”
Just last year, the state gave Newark Public schools a 56 million dollar budget cut. NPS administration said the budget cut was due to decreased enrollment. He also expressed how the principals’ voices are often not heard, “people don’t know what’s going on,” he said, “because we’re not allowed, as principals, to talk to the press. So there’s a lot of things that we can’t say, that we say at some of the meetings we attend. But understand, we know we’re under attack.”
Principal H.G. James IV went next and informed everyone, “during these three years as principal, I have lost my technology coordinator, literacy coach, math coach, music teacher, librarian, guidance counselor, and student assistant coordinator.” For many living in that district, they see the One Newark plan as a continuation or perhaps, the final step of being stripped from their funding and resources.
Three days after, the five public school principals attended and spoke at the January 15th community meeting, they received a call from the superintendent’s office. They were informed that they were indefinitely suspended. On background, the NPS administration stated officials were investigating serious concerns that families were being denied access to accurate information. Since then, three of the principals have been reinstated and two were reassigned to work on administration in the central office and are not allowed to go back in to their schools. But if this was an attempt to intimidate the principals and their supporters, it doesn’t seem to be working. The principals have already filed a lawsuit, arguing that Cami Anderson stripped them of their first amendment rights.
On March 18, at approximately 4 pm, hundreds of people started marching towards Broad and Market, a major intersection in Newark. Students, parents, community members, teachers, principals, school workers, and activists held signs opposing One Newark and school closings and yelling “shut it down!” They were talking about both the Plan and the intersection – as crowds blocked the four streets coming together at the intersection and traffic came to a halt. The chants continued as the Newark Students Union president went to the middle of the intersection to lead: “We have a duty to fight. We have a duty to win. We must love each other and protect each other. We having nothing to lose but our chains.”
Quoting Assata Shakur, they repeated the lines several times, ignoring the cars and buses honking behind them. Two 20-minute traffic blocks later, the crowd marched outside of a Board of Education meeting. During the speak outs connections were made with school closings and education defunding to the prison industrial complex and American wars overseas.
On April 3rd, the Newark Students Union organized a school walk out. Supported by parents and community members, about 1,000 students walked out of their classrooms at noon and met on the steps of Newark City Hall. During the rally, Newark High School student Kristin Towkaniuk did a mic check where she read out the demands of the walkout, “we the students of Newark New Jersey demand an immediate return of local control. We demand immediate removal of Cami Anderson. We demand an end of the war on our public education.”
Afterwards, the students marched down Broad street, stopping at companies and buildings that stand against their interests and “support Cami Anderson” and charter schools. The stops included the Prudential building, the CFA Headquarters and Foundation for Newark’s Future (FNF). Prudential gave Teach For America – Newark $100,000 in grants in 2013 (and has given TFA tens of thousands of dollars in grants each year) and also has given over $100,000 to charter schools to expand their businesses in to Newark. When I asked Kristin Towkaniuk (NSU president) what would a good education reform look like, she explained: “We need local control. We need real teachers with experience, not TFA kids right out of school.”
According to NSU’s facebook, police were called at Malcolm X Shabazz school and at Barringer to prevent people from walking out and authorities at East Side high school threatened to lock students inside. When she addressed the crowd, Kristin Towkaniuk announced that students from Shabazz, Weequahic (slated to close) and West Side High (slated to close) were locked in and prevented from walking out by authorities.
On April 30, students at West Side High school in Newark protested the firing of a popular teacher. The plan was to show up in all black, instead of the school uniform. That afternoon, students left their classrooms and went into the hallways, reportedly “banging on doors and lockers.” Authorities in the school called the Newark police on the students. There were reports of police officers allegedly using pepper spray or mace on students. NPS said there was no evidence of this and that no pepper spray residue was found. The teacher got his job back about a week later and the firing wasn’t directly connected to the upcoming mass layoffs that Newark public school teachers are expecting. However, if this was the reaction to one teacher getting fired, one must wonder how people – especially the students – will respond when more than 1,000 of their teachers are laid off.
Just yesterday, on Tuesday May 27, at 11 am, over 200 students at University High school in Newark staged a school walkout to protest the firing of their principal and five vice principals. One student told Bob Braun, “we are tired of our education being played with…We are not commodities. We do not want to be a part of privatization.” Another student said, “we are walking out today to protest the termination of our principal, administration and teachers. We are walking out today to advocate for local control of our schools.”
Community members, proving they don’t need the paternalistic corporate approach to school reform, created the Newark Promise: an alternative plan that emphasizes local control, better funding, and a holistic approach to both the students, their family members and the overall community. While direct action is happening on the streets, the political landscape is also changing. Ras Baraka won the mayoral election in Newark on May 13, despite education reform lobbyists pouring hundreds of thousands into his opponent Shavar Jeffries’ campaign. Ras Baraka, who has been outspoken against school closings and the One Newark plan, has also organized multiple community meetings and praised the Newark Promise plan. Legislation has been drafted requiring local consent from school boards in order for the state to sell or close school buildings. The bill (A2216) passed the Senate on February 27 and will soon be up for a second reading in the Assembly.
The corporate takeover of public schools is happening on a national level. “This is happening [in] Chicago, New Orleans, Detroit and Philadelphia,” Jose Leonardo of the Newark Students Union reminds us. “It’s no coincidence that they’re targeting urban environments where most of us minorities live and work. This ‘experiment’ is mostly targeting the Black and Latino youth of this country…the system is built to make certain people fail and certain others succeed [but] the students are ready to rip off the chains that this world has forced [them] to endure.”
From electing Ras Baraka as Mayor of Newark to organizing direct action and civil disobedience time and time again, the people of Newark seem to be in it for the long haul. “This is not the end. We will continue to stand in solidarity for what we all as a community believe in and know…needs to be done in this movement,” reads the end of the statement the Newark Students Union released regarding Tuesday’s occupation, “Welcome to the Newark student revolution.”