As troubled One Newark school enrollment plan process continues, Baraka amplifies need for local control

NEWARK – The school year is set to start next week in the state’s largest city, but many Newark residents feel schooled by what they see as a confusing school enrollment plan put in place by the controversial One Newark school reorganization plan.

“I can’t find the right school for my kids,” said Yahira Mallol of Newark’s North Ward on Tuesday afternoon, standing outside of Newark Vocational High School on West Kinney Street moments after she enrolled her daughters, Yarlissa, 15, and Noelia, 11. At this point, Yarlissa has been placed in a North Ward high school, while Noelia could be placed in a South Ward grammar school. “In Georgia, where we used to live, if you come from out of state, you don’t have to wait. You just sign up, and you go to school.” 

The recent turmoil over school enrollment, which began last week, stems from the One Newark plan, announced by Newark School Superintendent Cami Anderson in December. The Anderson-backed initiative includes the expansion of charter schools, which already serve approximately 20 percent of the city’s students, as well as the closure or consolidation of certain public schools.

Newark’s schools were placed under state control in 1995. Anderson was appointed to head the state-run Newark school district, New Jersey’s largest, by Gov. Chris Christie in 2011. A wave of Newark public school student protests called for the removal of Anderson, as well as for the termination of the Anderson-backed One Newark plan, earlier this year. Anderson, however, had her contract renewed for three years by the Christie administration in June. 

One facet of the plan is that instead of permitting parents to pick the school closest to their home, the new enrollment model allows them to research schools and rank their preferences for public or charter schools throughout Newark. Yet although this component of the plan was meant to improve the city’s public education system by increasing student options, it appears to have left many parents with only hard choices.

“This is the second time, I’ve come back here, and it’s unfair,” said Dennis Ho, 42, a Vietnamese immigrant who lives in the Ivy Hill neighborhood on Newark’s west side. Ho walks his children to school despite a medical condition that makes it difficult to do so. “I live one block away from my children’s school, Mount Vernon [Elementary School]. They told me that my six-year old son is going to Mount Vernon, and that my five-year-old son is going to Lincoln Elementary School, ten blocks away. My wife needs our car for work. How am I going to do this, especially in winter? Maybe one son is going to have to stay home with me. It’s too far. This is America. Why is someone else making a decision about where my kids go to school? I disagree with this a lot. This plan doesn’t work for me.”

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, the former principal of Newark’s Central High School, has been vociferous in his opposition to the One Newark plan. His opposition to the plan, and to Anderson’s leadership of the city’s schools, was a major factor in his victory in the city’s mayoral election in May. But at a town hall meeting Tuesday night, Baraka continued to voice his dismay with Anderson, but pointed out that she is not the ultimate problem regarding the future of Newark’s public education system.

“It’s not about Cami Anderson. It’s about local control. If we had local control, we wouldn’t be having this discussion in the first place,” Baraka said to a crowd of more than 100 people at Good Neighbor Baptist Church on Chancellor Avenue in Newark’s South Ward. “We need local control. Jersey City needs it. Paterson needs it. When Chris Christie says he’s the ‘the decider’ [regarding Anderson’s future as Newark’s school superintendent], that’s right, he is the decider. They’ve been deciding for 20 years. They’ve just been deciding the wrong things.”

“The charter community is not satisfied with these people either,” Baraka added. “Democracy, and free public education, allows you to walk up the stairs of the school door, walk into the office, and say I want my child to go to school here by virtue of the fact that I live across the street. [The One Newark plan] undermines the whole concept of choice. You have a choice. You just don’t have this choice. Our job is to fix this.”

Anderson apologized for the enrollment difficulties last week in a written statement, saying that “family demand for quality school options far exceeds the number of quality seats we have available today.” 

Back at the enrollment center earlier in the day, Shantel Williams, 26, made another choice for daughter, Zaniyah, a seven-year-old about to enter the second grade. 

“It’s too much. I’m out of here,” said Williams, a certified nursing assistant, holding the papers to transfer her daughter out of the Newark school system so she can put her daughter into neighboring Irvington’s school system. “I live in the North Ward, and they want to put Zaniyah in a school even farther away from where I live in the South Ward. I don’t have a car. Forget it. I’ll just take her to another district and move, so I have don’t have to deal with this. You can’t just close people’s schools down and then expect them to accept where you’re trying to send their kids. I just don’t understand this. I can’t deal with the headache.” 

As troubled One Newark school enrollment plan process continues, Baraka amplifies need for local control