Thousands of high school students in Newark, New Jersey staged a walkout of school and blocked a major roadway on May 22 in what organizers say was the biggest student protest in the city’s history.
The walkout was in protest of Gov. Chris Christie and Superintendent Cami Anderson’s plans for changing the city’s school system through expanding charter schools, shutting down and merging public schools, and shifting students to schools farther from their homes. The students are also protesting against Anderson’s “turnaround” program which requires teachers to work longer hours, undergo two additional weeks of training in the summer, and work on multiple Saturdays.
“We’re protesting today to demand full local control,” Thais Marques, a protest organizer, told Reuters. “If you don’t have full local control, Cami Anderson and Governor Christie will continue to shut down our schools in the name of programs like ‘turnaround,’ ‘renew,’ ‘co-locate,’ whatever you want to call it.”
Currently more than 20 schools have been designated as “turnaround” schools, and Anderson is planning on adding nine more schools to the program.
“Given Cami Anderson’s achievement record, we know that this is just another reform attempt to close nine more public schools in the city,” Roberto Cabanas, an organizer with NJ Communities United, told ABC7 Eyewitness News.
The walkout, organized by NJ Communities United and the Newark Students Union, began around noon with students from various schools walking out of their classes and rallying at City Hall. The students, numbering well over a thousand, then marched down Broad Street towards the Peter W. Rodino Federal Office Building, where they occupied the entrance plaza. The students then staged a blockade of the intersection of McCarter Highway and Miller Street, near the New Jersey Turnpike and other major highways, blocking traffic for about 20 minutes.
Motorists on the highway, like Asbury Park resident Francisco Duprey, did not seem to mind the traffic delay.
“I think they’re a voice for the community,” he told NJ.com. “They’ve got a duty so they’re doing it … I just got caught in the middle of it.”
Another motorist, Cassanda Gold, whose daughter attends one of the schools participating in the walkout also supported the students.
“I’m not mad. I think it’s great,” she told NJ.com. “Democracy is great.”
Students had a speak out on the highway and then dispersed around 2 p.m. The protest lasted about two and a half hours without any major incidents. Newark’s mayor Ras Baraka voiced his support for the protest.
“Today’s protests signify an important fact: our Newark public school students understand that they are not receiving the education they deserve from the Newark Public School system,” he told Patch.com. “That is why they are exercising their First Amendment rights today to protest this situation, demanding that they and the greater community of Newark — residents, parents, teachers and the administration — be heard and respected by the school district and its superintendent, Cami Anderson.”
But Newark Public Schools spokeswoman Brittany Chord Parmley stated that the district, unlike the mayor, could not come out in support of the students.
“While the district supports our students’ right to express their opinions and concerns, we cannot support these actions when they disrupt the regular instructional day,” she told CBS New York. “The district remains committed to broadening opportunities for Newark’s students through expanded learning time and through creating additional professional development opportunities for teachers.”