Your editor can’t exactly feign shock over Ras Baraka’s victory over Shavar Jeffries in Newark’s mayoral election. After all, Baraka’s career as a city councilman — along with support from his colleagues — gave him the political constituency, and thus, the strong chance of victory that newcomer Jeffries lacked. The fact that Jeffries managed to get 46 percent of the vote in spite of his inexperience in the political arena is an accomplishment in itself; Baraka, who is also principal of one of Newark’s traditional district schools and the son of a legendary poet who lives in the city, should have won by a much-wider margin.
Baraka also benefited from the exhaustion among Newark residents with former Mayor (and now U.S. Senator) Cory Booker’s inability to improve the city’s quality of life. In fact, the discontent among residents with the city’s rising crime levels, including a 33 percent increase in the violent crime rate between 2007 and 2012 (from 862 per 100,000 people to 1,154.5 per 100,000) was as much a factor in Baraka’s victory over Jeffries as complaints among some about Supt. Cami Anderson’s overhaul of the failing traditional district (especially from those who have benefited from its role as a urban jobs program). Despite Jeffries’ efforts to show how he would address the city’s crime problems, he had the misfortune of being considered the next Booker — and not in a good way.
But there is good news for reformers — and for Newark’s children — from the election: That Jeffries can go back to work as one of the city’s leading advocates for overhauling education. By building strong support for systemic on the ground — including fixing or ditching a traditional district model that has failed for most of the past 50 years — Jeffries could end up doing far more good for Brick City kids than he ever could have done from city hall.
As Jeffries himself has pointed out in an interview in The New Yorker — and as Dropout Nation has noted extensively since its founding — one of the school reform movement’s biggest problems is that it hasn’t focused enough on rallying support from families and communities on the ground. Sure, reformers have largely succeeded in winning over policymakers in city halls, statehouses, and even the White House. But policymaking, as hard as it can be (because of the work around developing policies, building alliances and hashing out compromises), is the easy part of reform. The real work comes in sustaining reforms on the ground. This means winning the hearts and minds of parents and community players, who certainly are dissatisfied with the quality of education their children are offered and are dismayed by the unwillingness by many within traditional public education to treat them as the leading partners in education decision-making.
Yet, save for the likes of Green Dot and Future is Now founder Steve Barr, Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone, Capital Prep Principal Dr. Steve Perry, and Parent Power activists such as Ben Austin and Gwen Samuel, reformers tend to give grassroots work short shrift. One reason is because working in the grassroots is hard work. After all, it involves listening attentively to — and addressing — concerns, providing lots of resources (including time) in order for people to help themselves, solving problems quickly, often without a plan, and giving families real power to shape the direction of reform in ways that fit the contexts in which they live. Particularly for Beltway and operation-oriented types, grassroots work is is glamorous than hobnobbing with politicians, and at the same time, doesn’t dovetail with their skill sets. Just as importantly, working with communities also means challenging their own views about the role of families and communities in education decision-making, which can be as impoverished as those held by the traditionalists they oppose.
But as Anderson’s struggle to overhaul Newark’s traditional district has shown (and as supporters of Common Core reading and math standards have learned the hard way), policies and practices, no matter how beneficial they are to children, cannot be sustained without the support of families and communities. For one, implementing these reforms involve the futures of the children they love and the neighborhoods in which they live. As successful movements of history such as the 19th-century fight to end the global slave trade and the Civil Rights Movement of the last century has shown, social change cannot be fully realized without the work of networks within communities that can successfully challenge the status quo.
There’s also the fact that locals of the American Federation of Teachers, along with those of the National Education Association, remain influential forces on the ground. While the influence AFT and NEA affiliates in education policymaking is in decline, they still can count on rank-and-file members who can serve as lobbyists on the ground. The fact that both unions poured $163 million in 2012-2013 into outfits such as the NAACP also gives them the ability to appear as if they are attending to community concerns even as they rip off their children off educationally and economically. You can’t fight for reform if you don’t have advocates on the ground ready for battle.
Besides, as reformers should know by now, the most-successful efforts have been — and continue to be — undertaken on the ground by people who live in the communities most-affected by them. This includes mothers and fathers spurred to take action and become what former National Urban League president Hugh Price calls impromptu leaders by concerns for the futures of their children. From Virginia Walden Ford’s work in spurring reform in Washington, D.C., to the efforts of Rev. Floyd Flake and other black clergy in building up the charter school movement, to the push by Samuel and others to pass Parent Trigger laws, families and other grassroots players have done the work of jump-starting and sustaining reform that Beltway and operator-oriented reformers, often more-concerned about policy and management than with rallying critical support from people on the ground, almost never do.
More importantly, their willingness to challenge the faulty thinking of fellow reformers (especially Beltway types), along with their stridency in defending their communities (as well as demanding better from both reformers and traditionalists alike), is important in ensuring that the movement fulfills its mission of providing all children with the high-quality education they need to write their own stories. Given that school reformers have a tendency to fall in love with their own favored solutions and engage in silver-bullet thinking, a little contrarian thinking from black and Latino reformers who are especially attuned to the skepticism of their communities (who have had to deal with broken promises from outsiders who don’t share their skin color) can go a long way.
Simply put, the school reform movement needs bodies on the ground. More importantly, the movement needs activists who look like the people who live in those communities, who share their backgrounds, and know the challenges they face on a daily basis. This is where Jeffries (along with other black school reformers who are the new civil rights activists in their communities) comes in.
From his work in founding KIPP’s Team Academy charter school, to his tenure as chair of the advisory committee charged with overseeing the overhaul of Newark’s district, Jeffries has been an unabashed reformer. At the same time, Jeffries’ willingness to call Anderson on the carpet for not giving families stronger roles in shaping her overhaul efforts, along with his calls for reformers to incorporate communities as real decision-makers in school decision-making, shows that he will not just simply march in lockstep with the movement. One could easily argue that Anderson would be more-successful in her turnaround effort if she paid Jeffries more mind.
Jeffries’ presence is also important because of the reality that Newark needs to move beyond a traditional district model that has failed the city’s children for far too long.
Even after 19 years of efforts to overhaul Newark’s district that began with ts takeover by New Jersey’s state education department, it remains a basket case. Sure, the district’s five-year promoting rate (based on eighth-grade enrollment) of 77 percent for its Class of 2014 is better than the 58 percent rate for its graduating class 14 years ago. But that still means that 561 eighth-graders in the original graduating class likely dropped out. More importantly, few of the kids who are graduating are proficient enough in reading and math to succeed in higher education and, ultimately, in life. The district’s continuing dysfunction (along with that of its advisory board) is another reminder of why traditional school systems fail so miserably in providing kids with high-quality education.
The Garden State has long ago proven, both in Newark and in Jersey City, that it cannot achieve much in overhauling districts. Yet putting the district under mayoral control wouldn’t necessarily lead to better results. After all, new mayor Baraka has shown soon-to-be former role as principal of one of the district’s failure mills (as well as in his role on the city council) that he is thoroughly unsuited for the job. Newark city government’s inability to reduce crime and improve quality of life, along with its notorious reputation for spectacular corruption, also makes mayoral control unsuitable.
Families in Newark have already shown the way toward reform by fleeing the district for charter schools. The rest of Brick City, along with the state, should follow by embracing the Hollywood Model of Education by expanding the already-existing network of charters, launching schools run by churches, and community organizations, and enacting a Parent Trigger measure that allows families to take over and overhaul traditional district schools in their neighborhoods. With reformers such as Jeffries on the ground, we can embark on reforms that give families and communities the power to transform education as well as help their kids gain the knowledge they need for success in adulthood.
Would it have been great to have Shavar Jeffries in Newark’s city hall? Of course. But it is even better to have him in his hometown standing with families to advance systemic reform. And we need more men and women like him in every community.