School & District Management Opinion

Newark Principals Speak Out, Get Suspended by Christie’s Superintendent

By Anthony Cody — January 18, 2014 7 min read
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New Jersey is making headlines this month as the bullying tactics of Governor Christie have gone beyond shouting down individual school teachers, which many in the media seemed to find amusing, and into the realm of political scandal as the “Bridgegate” emails came to light.

Now Newark, New Jersey, is exploding, thanks to the attempts at intimidation by Governor Christie’s hand-picked superintendent of schools, Cami Anderson. Anderson came to Newark after working in New York City schools. Before that, she was employed with New Leaders for New Schools and Teach For America.

Journalist Bob Braun today carries a report on the decision by Anderson to “indefinitely suspend” five of Newark’s principals. Braun explains:

The "incident" was a community meeting at the Hopewell Baptist Church last Wednesday where (H.G. James) spoke, praising the efforts of his students, teachers and parents. James was one of five principals indefinitely suspended in one day by Cami Anderson, Christie's agent in Newark. The others were Tony Motley, Bragaw Avenue School; Dorothy Handfield, Belmont-Runyon School; Deneen Washington, Maple Avenue School, and Lisa Brown, Ivy Hill School. Four of the principals...tried to answer questions from local residents worried about what would happen to their children as Anderson moves toward a wholesale transfer of public school assets to the KIPP Schools, a charter organization that operates TEAM Academy Charter Schools. Questions Anderson wasn't answering.

The plot thickens when we understand what these community forums were all about. These forums were convened by mayoral candidate Ras Baraka, to give the community a voice in response to planned school closures. A video shows the principals speaking to their community.

Here is what was said:

Tony Motley: Thank you for fighting with us, and in terms of action steps we want the parents to know that any meeting that you have, our schools are available. Just let us know, whatever time it is. You should be using Board facilities to work out a Board problem. I just want to say, there’s a lot of things that people don’t know that’s going on, cause we’re not allowed, as principals, to talk to the press. So there’s a lot of things that we can’t say, that we say at some of the meetings we attend. But understand, we know we’re under attack. We’ve been under attack for years, before this even started. Our resources have been TAKEN. Everything that could be done to make us not function. Teachers switched constantly. You have good teachers get taken out and given other teachers.

I have had resources at my school - ceiling fans that we ordered that they would not put up. I went to another school in another part of town, because you know we have two cities, and the same ceiling fans were put up, the one’s that I was told could NOT be put up. Also, waiting for - we all wait - I think there were two summers where we had to wait to get things done in our schools because the Renew schools had to be opened. Looking at those Renew schools scores, THEY should be closed. I hate to say that ANY school in Newark should be closed - I’m sorry - Let’s not say they should be closing. They should be looking at how Cami (Anderson) manages schools. Instead of looking at how WE manage schools, because we beat’em.

H.G. James IV: As principal Motley shared, during these three years as principal, I have lost my technology coordinator, literacy coach, math coach, music teacher, librarian, guidance counselor and student assistant coordinator. We also have three years of consistent improvement on student achievement. In 2013 we hit our state targets in literacy, and exceeded in mathematics. But one of the most important things we can do for our community is to let them know who we are. No one should be able to come into our building to tell us who we are and what we are.

One of the things we’ve done aggressively is give student achievement data to parents, and break it down so they can understand what it is our students are doing well in, and where they need work. The other thing is we have a very strong parent liaison, Ms. Marr, she’s in the hospital, she works from the hospital, and she has gotten together with our PTSA. We have Friday rallies every single Friday from 7:30 in the morning til 8:30 in the morning, and parents are coming out. We’ve had two community meetings with over 250 parents at each of those meetings. We have over 300 signatures on a petition. We organized a letter-writing campaign to Superintendent Anderson, organized by the PTSA, so our voices are being heard. We have to empower people with information. Our children are not ignorant - that they can do anything that they put their minds to, and we’re actually getting it done. I want to commend Mr. Baraka, principal and councilman, for having the courage to stand out, and be bold enough to do that.

Dorothy Handfield. I’m the prior principal at Belmont-Runyon Elementary school. As my colleagues said, we’ve been quiet for too long as administrators as to what’s been going on in our buildings. We’ve been making it happen for our children regardless of the resources that have been taken away from us year after year after year, and it’s just gone on too long. Like Councilman Baraka said, we do play a part in it, because we’ve kept it quiet, because we wanted school to be open for the children without them knowing what’s going on in the background - I know I’ve been doing that. Even the staff - I don’t tell them everything that goes on because you just want them to do their job, and not worry about the money, and what we don’t have.

But it’s gotten to the point, we can’t make it happen off of nothing. We need your support. We’ve been having parent meetings and telling them the truth as to what’s been going on. How are you selecting these schools? What’s going to happen if you go to a school and they don’t have the resources? What needs to be happening for us as a community? It’s not ironic - it’s always happening in the South Ward. We need your support. Please come out when we ask you to.

Deneen Washington: This is not the first ... we’ve been penalized for years, told to keep quiet. For years we’ve had bad evaluations, and issues have been created around funding, inequities within the city of Newark. I’m from here. I grew up six blocks from here Prince Street Projects. I am a fighter. You may not hear my words all the time, but now? I’m tired. I’m mad as hell. I’m trying to get my staff riled up and mad as hell too. Because that is the only way that they will listen. We are boycotting the application -- we’re not doing it. Maple Avenue school is not listed on the applications. I have created my own password to go on, and Maple Avenue School is not listed. So my parents can’t put Maple Avenue School as their first, second or third choice. And I was told today, “Maple no longer exists.” The devil is a liar. Because I’m going down fighting. I will no longer stand still and stand quiet and let them do to our babies, whether it’s Carver, or Maple, those are all of our kids in the South Ward. Maple is boycotting the application, we are getting together a panel discussion of leaders, because we have private vendors that pour millions of dollars...

Jersey Jazzman shared a press release from Councilman Ras Baraka, which said, in part,

Today Cami Anderson indefinitely suspended four Newark principals: Tony Motley of Bragraw Avenue School, Grady James of Hawthorne Avenue School, Dorothy Handfield of Belmont-Runyon, and Deneen Washington of Maple Avenue. She suspended the four principals because they spoke at a public forum on Wednesday in opposition to Ms. Anderson's widely criticized "One Newark" reorganization plan which includes closing or "repurposing" nearly one third of Newark's public schools.
Ms. Anderson's action in suspending the four principals is the last straw in a chain of inept, and horribly out-of-touch decisions. The people of Newark need to hear the views of those within the school system who disagree with Ms. Anderson. The four principals have a constitutional right to speak out. The Newark school district is not a military dictatorship, and Ms. Anderson is neither an army general nor a police chief. Her behavior must be governed by the principles of our democracy.

Daryn Martin, PTO President at Ivy Hill elementary school, spoke out at a press conference, and reported that he had been physically pushed, and had his PTO flyers ripped down at the school site.

Mr. Martin posted the following on his Facebook page yesterday:

Wow, the Principals at Bragraw, Belmont Runyon, Hawthorne & Maple get Suspended for speaking at a Public Community Meeting. My children Principal gets Suspeded because she Can't control me. I get Banned from my own children school because I'm speaking out against injustices. Newark NJ Stand Up. If we allow Christie, Cerf & Cami to get away with this, Shame On Us. And if they Succeed in Newark NJ, there is No Doubt that Jersey City & Paterson is next. I'm calling out Every Pastor, Union, Elected Official & Anyone that Supported, Endorsed, Voted for, & Cut Deals with Christie to call him & tell him to Clean up this mess. If you Don't, you are just as Guilty as he is for this

At the same Trenton press conference where Daryn Martin spoke, Senator Ron Rice, who represents Newark in the NJ Senate, spoke about another incident in which the Newark Administration locked students in a school library to speak with them about the school closings and reorganization and would not allow parents access. The parents were at the school for a PTA meeting. You can hear Senator Rice’s comments towards the end of the tape that begins with Mr. Martin speaking.

There is a Facebook group for parents against the “One Newark” program that is related to this controversy. Save Our Schools New Jersey is also actively involved and has launched this petition opposing the privatization of schools..

On a more positive note, new legislation to stop forced public school closings was introduced in both the NJ Senate and Assembly. It has many sponsors and is expect to move quickly. Here is a petition in support of this legislation. Perhaps the words of these bold principals will help inspire action to get their schools the support they need.

Update, Jan 21, 10 am EST: Questions have been raised about Chris Christie’s involvement in Cami Anderson’s appointment. He was indeed personally involved. From the New York Times, May of 2011:

The Christie administration has selected a New York City schools official who is an ally of Mayor Cory A. Booker of Newark to lead that city's school system, according to a person briefed on the appointment. The choice, Cami Anderson, has served for four years as senior superintendent of New York's network of alternative schools for nontraditional students, like those who are in jail or beyond high school age. Before that, she spent five years as executive director of Teach for America, the group that recruits young people for short stints teaching in poor schools across the country.

And when her contract was renewed, there was no doubt that she had the governor’s personal support:

During a public appearance Wednesday at a school in Beach Haven, Christie was asked whether he and Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf plan to renew Anderson's contract, given the level of criticism from the Newark community, about the job she's doing. "Yes we do, and we're going to renew it because she's done a great job, and I don't care about the community criticism," Christie said. "We run the school district in Newark, not them."

Update, Jan. 20, 6 pm EST: Diane Ravitch appeared on The Ed Show on Monday to discuss the situation in Newark.

Update, Jan. 24, 10:36 am: Bob Braun’s Ledger this morning reports that three of the five principals have been reinstated at their schools, and two assigned to central office.

Update, Jan. 26, 7 pm EST: Bob Braun’s Ledger reports that the principals have filed a law suit over the Superintendent’s attempts to silence them.

Correction: An earlier version of this report indicated that Cami Anderson was a product of the Broad Academy. That appears to be incorrect. Rather, her association with Broad is through a partner organization, as described here.

What do you think of these principals, and the way they have spoken out?

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