Standing outside the YMWCA on Broad Street in downtown Newark on Saturday, just down the block from where FaceBook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Governor Chris Christie and Mayor Cory Booker had just held a press conference about transforming the city’s public school system into a national model for excellence in education, three young students weighed in on the subject.
Kiara Johnson (pictured here on left along with her sister Ahliya and brother Morad) is running for 4th grade student council president at Newark’s Madison Elementary School. Being an outspoken budding community activist, she has some ideas about how to improve the city’s district schools.
“We need clean bathrooms.” Johnson explained. “We also need real food for lunch and more vegetables — like collard greens.”
Her brother, who is 12 years old and attends the Louise A. Spencer School agrees that the bathrooms are a big problem, but adds that they really need books. “There is no toilet paper or soap and the bathrooms are so dirty. There’s no water to drink because the fountains are dirty,” said Morad Johnson. “We have no books to take home and read. We need books to learn.”
Their mother, Siddeequah, an NJ Transit worker, added that she wanted to give a “really big shout out to Mark Zuckerberg and tell him that Newark gives him 6 thumbs up.”
Earlier that day, at the press conference held at the Robert Treat Hotel, the youngest attendee in the room, Tyree Robinson — a North Star Academy Charter School student — also had ideas of how Zuckerberg’s $100 million could improve the city’s schools. “We need more money for text books, notebooks, pencils and computers,” Robinson said, while his grandmother Bernice Robinson nodded in agreement. “I think our teachers are OK, but we need more supplies for every day use.”
While waiting in the hotel lobby for the press conference to begin, Baristanet spoke with Peggy Burke, a Christian missionary in town from Ohio to speak at Newark’s Bethany Baptist Church, at yesterday’s Sunday service. Burke, who watched the announcement of Zuckerberg’s gift on Friday’s Oprah, realized that the remarkable gift worked in with her planned speech to the church congregation. “My message is all about generating love in the world,” Burke explained. “The youth of this city need to be rescued — many of them don’t experience a lot of love. I believe that Mark Zuckerberg’s intention and efforts are genuine, and that he might just care enough to help them.”
During the press conference, the trio reiterated all the upbeat and hopeful talking points that they spoke about on Friday; lots of shared vision for educational excellence and zero tolerance for failure and negativity.
Governor Christie, whose drastic cuts to state education funding have caused tremendous uproar throughout the state since he took office — especially with the teacher’s union — said that he is “sickened by the failure that surrounds the education system, and that his concern is for the children of Newark.”
Christie said that he is is tired of hearing “no” from the teacher’s union and won’t tolerate the “obscenity of children being deprived of a good education.” In referring to the union as a destructive force in Newark’s education, the governor said, “We want to focus on what’s possible. We’re about yes, they’re about no. we’re about tomorrow, they’re about yesterday. We’re about kids, they’re about paychecks.”
Christie continued to explain “Bad teachers shouldn’t be teaching anymore and the union shouldn’t be protecting them. We need to discuss how to empower teachers, as well as hold them accountable.”
At the conclusion of Saturday’s press conference, with lots of good will and positive energy flowing, Baristanet asked young Tyree Robinson if he believed what the politicians had to say. Robinson’s tentative response of “maybe” was perhaps based on his own well-founded skepticism. Will Zuckerberg’s money and the political leadership show this young man that Newark can, in fact, be a shining light of educational transformation?
Ray Dandridge, a former public school administrator, classroom teacher and staff developer who grew up in Newark and currently lives in the Central Ward ‘s James Street Commons Historic District, believes that any incoming funding that actually reaches the children attending the city’s public schools is a good thing for urban education. “I hope that the funds are not spent on diagnosing problems, but rather are used to help the students by engaging people who really understand the issue first hand, and not some academic or politician looking to further his career.”
Bottom photo courtesy of Gary He for Facebook