North Star Academy's Lincoln High School campus opened in 2019. It is located on Washington Street just north of Court Street in downtown Newark, New Jersey. Photo credit: Ark Republic

Stand and deliver. New Jersey charter school students protest ‘anti-Black environment’ for their teachers

Students at North Star Academy walked out of their school in protest over what they say is a years-long record of discriminatory treatment toward Black educators.

Standing in formation with placards on the steps of Newark’s City hall while chanting “protect [B]lack teachers,” a former teacher and a group of students from North Star Academy’s Lincoln Park High School campus demonstrated against what they call an “anti-Black” environment at their charter school.

“We’re tired of losing relationships with teachers, connections with teachers that connect with us. To then be pulled apart, ripped, from the stem. You want to teach Black students, teach them with Black teachers,” orated one of the student protestors to the teen rally goers.

The students allege that they have endured a negative educational experience due to the high turnover rate of Black instructors. To add, the silencing of both Black teachers and pupils raising multiple concerns about the school, contradicts the Administration’s emphasis towards students to participate in the shaping a progressive world. Jasmine, one of the protest leaders questioned, “What does it say to young children, especially when all of your teachers are white and the ones that are black are always leaving?”

The students say the rapid departure of educators results from teachers being forced out of an uninviting atmosphere that supports a pedagogy and overall agenda that ignores the specific needs of its majorly Black students and faculty. “We’re doing this for everyone who had to be a martyr for Uncommon [schools],” Kwadjo Otoo vocalized in an impassioned speech at the protest. 

Otoo, who had a shirt on with the names of Black instructors who left, said that the protest was for “Black teachers everywhere” who experience racism in what he says is an environment of white supremacy.

“We’re not gonna let all the teachers who got kicked out, and pushed out and disrespected, for them to just be disrespected, and we don’t do nothing.”

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Otoo alleged that Uncommon schools offered some cosmetic changes over the years, but failed to adequately address systemic issues such as providing an adequate number of social workers for a school that makes high academic demands. Currently, there are two social workers for the 700 students at the Lincoln High School campus. As well, Otoo accused the school’s administration of the “criminalization of Black girls.”

Tasha Grant, a former North Star Academy theater teacher, also gave a fiery speech condemning the charter franchise’s treatment of Black teachers and students. “You all deserve to be safe in your classrooms, you all deserve to be safe in your city . .  this is a Black student problem across the country,” she said.

In response, school administration placed the institution on lock down, refusing to allow protestors back in. North Star Academy issued a statement through its spokesperson Barbara Martinez. “We believe in and tell our students that their voice matters, and we respect their peaceful protest today,” she wrote. “We look forward to listening and working/discussing in the coming days to address student concerns and collaborate with students and families on the challenges raised.”

While the students expressed that they expect to be reprimanded, they are standing firm on their resolve. “I feel like we are no different from those influential people that you hang posters up around the school and that you praise . . . they needed change to be done, so they did it themselves and this is what we’re doing right now,” said Jasmine.

Charter school industrial complex

While there have been long standing issues with race and education steeped in the American school system, Newark specifically has dealt with its issues around the rapid encroachment of the charter school industrial complex; or agencies using charter schools for big business rather than providing holistic, and healthy educational experiences. 

The rise of charter schools was ushered in during the mayorship of Cory Booker, who is now a Congressional senator. Sen. Booker (D-NJ) advocated for charter schools and private school vouchers. The pro-choice agenda assisted parents living in high unemployment, low income areas, the ability to locate better educational options. 

Under the Booker Administration which ran from 2007 to 2012, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg gifted the city $100 million in 2010, to overhaul the school district. The first substantial largesse of its kind, Sen. Booker, being a known Silicon Valley investor and regular to the tech hub of the country, also garnered matching dollars from then governor Chris Christie. In the deal, Christie, a former Donald Trump surrogate, picked outsider Cami Anderson to serve as the district’s superintendent.

With the blessing of Booker, Anderson brought in a slew of changes that centered the closure or takeover of public schools for charter institutions. The community response was overwhelming. Parents and students began to protest the reforms, citing they were not for the interest of the student, but more for the capital gain of charter schools, which are private firms using public money.

“Thousands of us would be protesting charter schools,” Afrika told Ark Republic. A local activist and member of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party, Afrika recalled that even after years of agitation, many of the public schools were transformed to charter schools. Plus, it was unveiled that a considerable amount of the Zuckerberg donation went to administration fees and consultants rather than to developing an effective model for other school districts to replicate. 

After serving four years, Anderson resigned when the current mayor, Ras Baraka, a Newark high school principal, came into office.

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Regardless of the political clash, North Star Academy, which started in 1997, benefitted from the Booker Administration’s pro-charter stance. The Uncommon Schools is a non-profit with schools in Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. Under their umbrella, North Star Academy has had several new multi-storied builds in Newark in the past 10 years. Of which, is the Lincoln Park campus; a location highly contested by residents when planners announced its development. 

Now, North Star Academy has schools in Newark and Camden, both cities that have a history of severely distressed educational systems.

Another concern about charters is the lack of protection for its teachers. Traditionally, charter schools fail to offer unionization, which ultimately leaves educators vulnerable to termination or being censured. To date, New Jersey has 111 charter schools with only 18 having collective bargaining with schools. But, the agreements exclude collective bargaining language under state law.

The students’ allegations at the protest lean toward the idea that their teachers had no legal protections to begin with. Grant, who had served as a teacher at North Star Academy for years, voiced her apologies if she “was complicit” in upholding a system she says is empowered by “white supremacy.” She also said she was “sorry for the Black teachers [who still work at North Star] for remaining complicit.”

In the letter from Uncommon Schools, Maritnez reported that 45 percent of staff members identify as Black or African American, 67 percent identify as non-white. However, Black folk or persons of colors has not translated into positive racial experiences for the students. 

“North Star students are fed up with the criminalization, public humiliation, exploitation, silencing, and harm they’ve experienced since many of them were in Kindergarten,” wrote Grant on her Instagram account.

While North Star Academy receives praise for its high college-bound rates, students say the demands of longer school days and school year have taken a toll. “We’re tired” lamented many of the demonstrators. Yet and still, they said they will continue to agitate until real change happens.

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

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