Newark School Closures: A Community Assault or a Community-Minded Response to Educational Needs?

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There’s lots of chatter about Newark Superintendent  Cami Anderson’s plan to close some of the city schools, although none more strident than the rhetoric from Newark mayoral candidate and current Councilman Ras Baraka, on leave from his other gig as principal of Central High School.

Here’s Baraka on school closures, particularly Weequahic High School (alma mater, by the way of Philip Roth):

Ultimately the state-appointed superintendent and the governor have a plan to dismantle public education in Newark…We’re asking that the state-appointed superintendent and that the governor of this state rethink some of these things they are doing. Come and speak to the community for real and allow us to have input in what’s going on. We want them to slow down. We want them to stop. I don’t think this is going to work and I don’t think the community buys into it.

Let’s jar Baraka’s jeremiad with a few facts. Newark’s school enrollment has dramatically shrunk, down to 36,000 children from a high of  75,000.  Of those 36,000,  8,000 have chosen charter schools and another 10,000 students linger on charter school waiting lists. It seems to me that families are voting with their feet and that it’s not unreasonable, given the decline in enrollment,  to acknowledge that the city needs fewer school buildings.

In other words, Newark requires less than half the infrastructure that it did at the city’s peak enrollment period. And parents want choices that go beyond traditional public schools.

On the other hand, closing a local school can be enormously disruptive to communities and Anderson could really improve her outreach efforts. Two other mayoral candidates, Shavar Jeffries and Anibal Ramos, urge greater efforts at community engagement and that’s a fair observation.

Baraka has a wedge issue, though, and it’s unlikely he’ll demur. He’s also got the support of the Newark School Board (no news there: he hand-picked a majority of members) and other supporters of the status quo.  Much of the outcome of the Newark mayoral race could depend on Anderson’s (and Gov. Christie’s and Ed. Comm.  Cerf’s) ability to reconfigure the specter  of school closures and charter school expansion from a top-down assault to a  progressive response to community and educational needs.

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