I am More Than Just an Index Card!
Today, the Newark Educational Success Board met with the community of Newark at the Abyssinia Baptist Church. So I threw on one of my good ole #PARENTPOWER t-shirts laced up my Chucks and drove on down to see what the hype was all about. This new hybrid of committee sent to lead the charge of restoring control back to the City of Newark was created by Governor Christie with the aid of Mayor of Newark Ras Baraka back in June of this year. The panel has nine members, four appointed by the Mayor and five appointed by the Governor. One being newly appointed ( cause we all know Governor Christie loves his appointees) Superintendent Christopher Cerf. HOW DO YOU LIKE THEM ODDS? Sounds like a bad Vegas bet to me. You guessed it the only Newarkers the 4 selected by Mayor Baraka. Here are the players on the Newark Educational Success Board:
Now, being completely honest, when this list was released back in June there was only one name I was enthusiastic to hear was being represented and that was Jose Leonardo, student leader and activist. I have spent time with Jose in the past and spoke to him about many different issues. The guy is a bright young man who is up for the task and I know, will keep the rest of these folks in line and most of all...honest! Now as far as the rest of them doing what needs to be done and that is ultimately to educate Newark children and the only agenda, well that remains to be seen.
My son and I walked into the lower level of the church where the meeting was going to take place. A table full of city hall employees was set up so that attendees could sign in. One of the ladies behind the table handed me a flyer of the event and another slid a legal note pad my way and asked me " do you want to sign in to speak tonight?" I immediately, slid the pad back and told her that I would take a seat and think about it. Truly, I was not sure if I wanted to lend my input in that capacity. You see, I have spoken many times at various city meetings and sessions and my view now is that I am not the lone Super Dad who will save the city! It's going to take a league of Super Parents to actively show change is occurring. My son who wanted to come along and see what it all was about and I took our seats. The room was filled with familiar faces from the educational fight, members of the Newark Teachers Union, the Newark Advisory Board, from City Hall and in front the Newark Educational Success Board. Cerf, floated around the room and as I watched him converse , he would only speak to very few and mostly those in suits and ties. Very little engagement with the actual members of the community. For someone who just last night on 1 to 1 with Steven Adubato, said he " is committed to engaging in dialog with the community, parents and teachers," you would think doing a little more "CROWD CERFING" would have been more appropriate. As much as I love me some Jose, one student, one parent from the panel is just not enough of a voice, for me anyway to understand the concerns of a whole community. If he is going to be different than his protegee Cami Anderson, he needs to connect with the people.
The meeting started and was opened by Reverend Perry Simmons, Pastor of the Abyssinia Baptist Church. He welcomed the the attendees and told us that he had to leave early as he had a prior commitment, he introduced the the Chair of the board Mary Bennett who explained that the board was not the same as the Advisory School Board but will work with them. She said the NESB ( already have an acronym for themselves) already met 3 times since its conception in June and will have a deadline to submit their findings and their report by June 2016. I did frown a bit on the deadline, partly because the State of NJ has been in control since 1995 and already over 2 decades of traditional Newark Public schooling has been impacted. The bleeding needs to stop and stopped now! The other part of me has heard committees like the Standards Review Board and some other state appointed "transitional committees" issue their deadlines, they come and go and we still see no change! Mrs. Bennett went on to discuss how they were not working on a "4-5" vote but rather than consensus. This was reiterated several times throughout the night and I wasn't sure if they were trying to convince us or each other. "As long as you remain at the discussion table and work with each other, we may not agree with everything but we can learn to support what needs to be done in order for the greater good." It was at this point she started the introductions of the board, but quickly advised that the following members would not be in attendance Al Koeppe as he was in California on a prior engagement and Rochelle Hendricks as she was ill. The members one by one took the podium introducing themselves and their roles in the community and what they hope to lend to the committee.
Mayor Baraka, entered and was given a moment to speak. He spoke to us about how we as a community may not always agree and that is part of democracy , having the right to debate our difference of opinions. He also said that just because we get local control back, doesn't mean we stop fighting and also "choice doesn't mean that choice made is your choice. We all have our own individual choice, but that's not how things are done." Mayor Baraka said, the choice that is being discussed is the choice for everyone. I could not agree with him more. However, from what we have seen from what has been masked as "choice" through things like One Newark, skepticism and hesitation on what we are told has to be our choice is a very sensitive subject matter. When One Newark has been dismantled and local control has been restored, neighborhood schools return, maybe choice will be an easier topic open for discussion. He said some more words of hope an encouragement and returned back to the audience.
The introductions continued. There were a few things that jumped out at me and these are simply my observations. Superintendent Cerf as he has been saying when in public said that he wants to "change the narrative of what is being put out in the public." That "the state and district have been at fault for some of the problems in the district." WELL YA THINK???? He really didn't say all that much or anything new or worth wild. Some other key comments that jumped out at me where " Our employees volunteer in tutoring North Star students (Charter)..oh and public schools as well" said Donald Katz, CEO of Audible.com. " I am not from Newark, but I hope my work in education as earned me a seat at the conversation in the change that is needed to return local control back to the community of Newark" said Ross Danis, CEO of Newark Trust for Education who received $3.5 million from the Magical Mystery Zuckerberg $100 million donation from Facebook for awards that are supposed to be administered to principals in high-needs schools and schools who showed achievement support. The most poignant introduction for me came from the youngest. Student Jose Leonardo, introduced himself with a "POWER TO THE PEOPLE!" He want on to tell the crowd that "the students where tired of fighting for something they deserve!" He said we needed to look back, but also needed to look forward as 20 plus years and generations have been impacted by the Cami Anderson reign. As I said before, Mr. Leonardo is my only hope for this board. Lot to put on his young shoulders, but knowing Jose, I am sure he is up for the challenge!
The floor was opened to questions. Maybe one or two where asked before Mary Bennett said " We will not have time to hear many questions and input this evening but please raise your hand and we will pass out index cards for you all to write down your ideas and input." SERIOUSLY!!! This is open dialog? I was not happy with that remark. This event was promoted and marketed as a meeting to gather community input so voices can be heard. I appreciate trying to facilitate the meeting but maybe the chair of the meeting could have done less with the wordy responses and allowed the PUBLIC to take center stage in this discussion. For every hand raised, there was a snappy comeback followed by "write it on your index card." Now, did she honestly think that was going to go over well? I understand the premise of the meeting was to get as much feedback as possible but the room was not that large and not everyone asked questions or had something to lend as far as "what schools after local control would look like!" They did have a sign in sheet when you walked in but that was either lost or totally forgotten about. Prior to the event there was no way of registering to sign up to speak. I mean even state run "pretendamittees" offer that. I quickly saw that the format had slipped away and raised my hand. I announced my name and proudly stated that I was a Newark resident and NPS alumni. I told the NESB that what I saw was a school that was on equal levels as those in our suburban neighbors districts. I explained to them that I do not want my son to come home with a school schedule and not know what is being taught and why it was full with double and triple blocks of ELA. No arts, no home economics, no wood shop. I told them I don't remember what some early grades were like but I do remember my 8th grade and how can a curriculum core and basic get my child anywhere near that of the competing child in Short Hills, Livingston or any other suburban town? It is completely unfair! I also told them that a perfect school to me would be one who allows parent input and that did not focus on heavy standardized test preparation. The Chair's response " put it on the index card." The hairs on my neck all jumped up! Other hands were selected during the course of evening. Here are a few in summary:
- Revitalization of the public school Athletics programs in Newark
- Externships offered by the corporations that occupy our city like Audible, Prudential, Panasonic and PSEG.
- More elective curriculum such as Music, Performing Arts, Culinary Arts, etc.
- Curriculum designed for those geared for more vocational students
- Learning other languages such as Mandarin Chinese (and no it was not my suggestion)
- Opportunities for children to experience and learn abroad
- STEM STEM STEM!!!
- Instituting the Amistad Law into curriculum
- Having Teacher Forums so educators can lend their input on whats needed in the classroom
- Clean and up to date facilities
- Up to date technology
All fantastic suggestions, all received a " put it on your index card" response! the only two questions that didn't were one someone asked" there is outside third party company handling the algorithm to select the teacher process in Newark through a teacher support portal and they had completed an OPRA request for what is the algorithm parameters and who is third party? The OPRA request was kicked back district had no info. Cerf, stood up as if to answer and basically said" see my staff, Mr. Garrett in the back and he will get your information and we will get back to you. A young elementary student bravely asked " why are there more students, than teachers? Why does my school have more than 30 kids, the legal limit in some classes?" He was deferred to se Mr. Garrett as well.
I am not trying to rag on the process or nip pick at this newly appointed committee. I understand this was just 1 out of 4 meetings that will engage the public (I so feel that 4 is not enough) but if this committee was created in June 2015 and they only have a year to furnish data, info and a report to the state, do they really think having the community who has tremendously valuable info to lend will keep showing up when they are told your voice looks like a 4x6 index card, they have failed before they have even gotten out of the starting gates! I urge this " appointed committee" to re-evaluate their tactics when asking the city for their input. When these index cards get lost in the shuffle and when the valuable information never gets it's way to the actual decision making table, will this still look the people of Newark's perfect schools, the corporations that sit on this new board or the Governor's? Will it still than be the "choice" the people are looking for?