Monday, March 28, 2016

Parsing Newark Mayor Ras Baraka's Education Commentary in his State of the City Speech

Earlier this month  Newark Mayor Ras Baraka gave his "State of the City" speech and devoted a long section to education. This is important not only because Newark is New Jersey's largest (and arguably  most troubled) school district, but also because in three weeks (April 19th) Newark residents will vote for School Advisory Board candidates. Baraka is backing a "Unity Slate" which includes two candidates who are generally considered pro-choice (Kim Gaddy and Tave Padilla) and one who isn't (Leah Owens). Typically, Baraka has run his own slate of candidates; it's noteworthy that this time he's feels either strong enough to give up some control or weak enough to collaborate.

Here's the transcript from his speech. I've pulled out a few educational highlights.

Mayor Baraka describes visiting two Newark schools that he describes as "beating the odds," probably a reference to the recent CRPE report that points to Newark as having one of the most high-performing urban districts in the country. (See my discussion here.) Those two "incredible" schools , says the Mayor, are  Bard Early College High School and Marion P. Thomas Charter School. Bard is a district magnet school with steep admissions criteria. Marion Thomas is a K-12 charter spread out among five buildings in Newark. Neither, of course, are traditional district schools, though no doubt Baraka could have found stellar students there too. Some quiet messaging here?

From the transcript: "I met a young lady at Marion P. Thomas who talked to me about her journey from Liberia and her fear of graduating from high school. She explained that she has no place to go after high school. She is working hard in school only to be ineligible for student loans and financial aid. I didn’t tell her I was building a wall to keep her out. I told her about Essex County College and the many opportunities we have there for her that could lead her in to any school, particularly Rutgers and NJIT [N.J. Institute of Technology]."

And here's Baraka praising Bard, with a few gratuitous jibes at Chris Christie:
Bard High School did the second best in the city on the PARCC exams. But what you should also know is that more students actually took the test at Bard than at the school that scored a better percentage. So Bard did the best out of schools with a comparable size.  Now there are great and brilliant children at Alexander Street School at the North Star Campus, and those students did incredibly well. This is the school the Governor visited, but Bard did equally as well. Why didn’t you know this? Because our kids’ actual success has been overshadowed by journalists trying to drive traffic to their sites, who have never visited any of these schools, elected officials that have chosen sides based on political expediency or money that cloud the issues with bravado, and special interests that are trying to benefit off of the missteps of our children. This is our city and these are our babies.
Feel free to comment on any interpretations re: this section. I'm kind of stymied. Trying to create a charter vs. traditional school dichotomy because Alexander St. is part of Uncommon's North Star charter group?  But Bard isn't a "traditional" school; it's a magnet that "creams off" top students.

And who are the journalists and special interests that the Mayor disparages? Most commentators (well, with the exception of some Star-Ledger editorials, Eric Dawson at "The Newark Report,"  and me), are anti-choice, as is the loud Newark Teachers Union. I do like, however, Baraka's focus on children, regardless of where they happen to go to school, and maybe that's the point.

After the Mayor  attacks Christie some more, he describes "success stories": "Team's graduation rate is 74% and Science High is around 96% Marion P. Thomas is at 88% and Central High School at 71% Bard is at 86% and Technology at 91%."

Note: with the exception of Central High, where Baraka was principal before his was mayor, the other schools he names are either charter schools or selective magnet schools.

He ends the educational section of his speech with a perorative call for unity:
Our students are succeeding at a variety of different schools both district and charter. Our job is to figure out how we make this work for all of our families and not feed those that wish to watch us at each other’s throats. Or those that replace democracy for their ego; who threaten people that disagree with them and would violate the law to push their agenda, or worst steal the screams from hungry babies rather than feed them. The British lost the war! There is no king! We live in a democracy, despite what Trump thinks and those that support him.  There will be no rolling over people here because if you try to roll me over you would have to roll over thousands of Newarkers that stand with me, and thousands more across this State that are tired of quieting away in the face of tyranny. Thousands, even millions of us, that are Democrats on purpose – and I would submit to you that they would both be traditional and charter parents. And just in case you have forgotten sir – this is Newark, not Fort Lee. You can’t just stop traffic here without repercussions
Take out the dings at Trump and Christie and the call for an end to "tyranny" and "roll[ing] over me... and thousands of Newarkers." (Not sure what to make of that either.) What you have left is a city leader who, finally,  eschews charter vs. traditional rhetoric and respects the enrollment patterns of an increasingly empowered parent constituency. Hail to the chief.

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