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Newark Group Presses on With Schools Boycott

Organizers of the Newark schools boycott intend to continue this week, but say the continuation beyond the initial planned five days will depend on feedback from the community.

It is unclear how many parents participated in last week's action, which started on the first day of classes on Thursday. On Friday, about 20 to 25 students, ranging from prekindergarten through high school, attended classes at the "Freedom School" set up at the International Youth Organization building on South 12 Street, said Owa Okaikor Aryee-Price, one of the organizers.

Aryee-Price said, however, that attendance at the center was not reflective of the participation in the boycott because the center was an "option" for parents, who were encouraged not to send their children to school in protest of the district's "One Newark" plan and various state education policies. Hundreds of parents had signed petitions during the summer supporting the boycott, she said.

The boycott , organized by Pulse NJ  (Parents Unified for Local School Education),  is squarely aimed  at the district's One Newark reorganization plan, which was unveiled last December but is being put to the full test this school year. 

The plan created a single enrollment system for all schools in the districts, consolidated some, and turned others over to charter management organizations.  One Newark has been criticized for being pro-charter, a charge strenuously refuted by schools Superintendent Cami Anderson. Many parents also were unhappy with changes that would send their children  to schools outside of their neighborhoods, and getting from home to the new schools is proving to be a hardship for some, even with a district-run, shuttle-bus service.

Anderson has defended the plan, saying that it aims to create more high-quality schools in the city, and directs some of the charter expansion planned by the city into the neighborhoods with poor quality schools.

Organizers of the boycott told the Associated Press on Thursday that the boycott had been a success, though they did not give definitive participation numbers.  Anderson, on the other hand, downplayed the boycott, saying that she had not noticed high levels of absenteeism in the schools that she had visited on opening day. She has urged parents not to participate in the boycott.

Johnnie Lattner, PULSE NJ's co-founder and director of  community relations, told Education Week last month that the goal was not simply to keep students are home, but to send a message to Anderson that the community needs to have a say in how its schools are run.

The One Newark plan, Lattner said, was "dividing, dismantling, destroying, and disrespecting the community which it was supposed to serve."

The group, he said, was interested in community-driven schools. Aryee-price said  members would like to see a holistic approach to learning, with wraparound services for children, a research-based curriculum, and less emphasis on standardized testing.

"Our hope is that she adopts that model so that we can have community schools, so the community itself can have a say in what happens in that schools and that we get the resources that's needed to make sure that if those schools are failing that they get those resources,"  Lattner said. 

The group planned to set up "Freedom Schools"—modeled on schools staffed by volunteers that were established in Mississippi in 1964 during the Civil Rights movement—to ensure that students are still learning.

Aryee-Price said the curriculum at the school will be modeled on one developed by the Chicago Grassroots Curriculum and the Freedom Schools curriculum.

On Monday, for example, there is expected to be age-appropriate discussions of Freedom Schools: Older students will learn about the history of the schools and Freedom summer using historical documents, while the younger students will read a book about the events of that summer.  After a break, they will take a community tour, observing and taking notes about changes in their community, which will be the subject of discussions when they return to class. There will also be an exercise in exploring students' personal connections to their communities through poetry and other artistic expressions, she said.

She called it a "very democratic way of learning."

"This is going to be self-driven," she said. "It's community-driven and community-based."

 

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