There’s Something Rotten in Newark

September 19, 2014

Beginning in May of this year in Newark, New Jersey, the Newark Students Union began to mobilize and stage a series of sit-ins and protests in response to frustrations about their school district and what has happened to it since it was placed under state control. A high school English teacher, I am acutely aware of the irony that exists in the lack of time I have to research issues pertaining to my field on a national level—issues like this one. My lack of knowledge about the nation’s greater educational landscape is directly related to my workload—much of which is the direct result of national or state policy. An average work day in most public high schools teachers’ lives consists of lesson planning, parent communication, IEP/504 plan meetings, facilitating sponsored student clubs or sports, grading roughly 1-2 assignments for approximately 150 students (although in full disclosure, this tends to get pushed to evenings and weekends) and, oh yes, typically teaching five classes. Still, the recent events in Newark, NJ have successfully caught my attention—and these events deserve a larger audience—namely because such events are student-driven.

Certainly, as a high school teacher, I am concerned about policy makers’ dismissals of the voices of adolescents. This is my 13th year teaching high school. When I have a question regarding the needs of any of my students I don’t call my principal, my superintendent, my senator, or the National Secretary of Education—I directly consult my students, and if the answer seems unclear, I ask his or her guardian/s. Sometimes, a student will seek attention in a negative way in order to be heard. Oftentimes, he or she will simply talk to me. If I’m not listening, or worse—if I ignore his or her base intentions— I may miss the opportunity to truly give instruction of value. I believe that is what is happening in Newark.

The problem in Newark is all too common across the United States—public schools have been placed out of district control under state control and proposed solutions include a reduction in force, or RIFs of educators, the closing of public schools in the name of charter education, and a reduction in after-school programming and other existing services. Newark student protests have called for the resignation of Newark Schools Superintendent, Cami Anderson, a town meeting with Governor Christie and the reinstatement of school control to their district. Students deliberately missed school, organized effectively and literally stopped traffic in order to be heard.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Ms. Anderson dismissed the students’ organizational efforts claiming that, “…student actions were led by adults who oppose her.” Such a dismissal demonstrates a fundamental problem in our nation—an inability to listen and respond effectively and directly to our youth. Adolescents are expected to grow into informed adults. Consider how much better informed they would be if adults took their actions for change seriously. Adding to my disappointment was the response of Asst. Superintendent Brad Haggerty, who in a written statement belittled student action by urging students to return to class: “We are supportive of our students expressing their views on important issues and remain committed to continuing discussions with those who have concerns; however, every minute of instructional time counts and we must unite as a community in delivering this message to our youth.” I must ask how instructional time in a classroom that students view to be failing their needs is more enriching than the practice of one’s constitutional rights (exercised by and for students) in the community they are fighting for? How is sending them back to class an act of acknowledgement of their views?

There is a lack of common sense missing from most points of legislation regarding education. Schools and students should not continue to be used as political pawns. Teachers should not be scapegoated for socio-political problems. But most importantly, students deserve to be heard when it comes to their educational needs. The data being used to inform legislation have measured testing ability—not the ability to put democracy into action, create change or inspire one’s peers. Newark students have taken to the streets for common sense based demands. They are shouting with voices of reason. My message to these students is that I hear you all the way in my southwestern state. In spite of my workload, your voices made me stop and listen. Keep speaking up until your leaders and legislators receive your messages loud and clear.


Jess Burnquist is a writer and teacher in Arizona.

Image: @sito_ goes, Twitter