Decision to make students learn remotely comes after walkout over discipline, Black teacher departures
Students from Newark’s Lincoln Park High School, which is part of the North Star Academy network of charter schools, walked out of school Friday and held a rally at City Hall. They said some Black teachers have left because they were unhappy with the school. Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Patrick Wall, Chalkbeat Newark
A Newark charter school that locked students out of the building Friday after they staged a walkout followed up this week by temporarily forbidding some students from returning to campus.
North Star Academy, the state’s largest charter school operator, ordered juniors and seniors at the Lincoln Park High School campus to stay home part of this week, according to several students, a parent, and a staff member. The school informed families on Sunday that students in those grades, who led the protests, would learn remotely on Monday, but did not explain why. The 11th graders returned to campus on Tuesday, while 12th graders did not resume in-person learning until Wednesday.
It is unclear whether the remote learning will count as state-recognized instructional days. Under a new state law, remote learning only qualifies as an official school day during emergency school closures that last more than three consecutive days.
While older students were at home, the school asked some of the protest organizers and their parents to come to campus to speak with administrators about the walkout and the student concerns that prompted it.
Students said there has been no school-wide meeting about the issues the protesters raised, including the departure of some Black teachers and strict student discipline policies that led nearly one in five students to be suspended in the 2019-20 school year.
“I believe they want to contain the students from taking any further steps,” said Dahlia Mansour, who allowed her ninth-grade daughter, Miriam, to participate in the walkout. “They don’t like when people stand up — they want to be obeyed no matter what.”
Administrators have assured students who participated in the protest that they will not face punishment, and at least one student said school leaders took her concerns seriously during their private meeting. However, other students interpreted the order for older students to temporarily stay home as an effort to silence dissent, and at least one staff member warned that protesters would face consequences.
“Do not come back to my gym, do not try out in August,” the school volleyball coach told team members this week in a voice message, which Chalkbeat obtained. “That is not what I represent, that is not what North Star represents.”
The board of trustees overseeing North Star, which educates more than 6,000 students in Newark and Camden, held a previously scheduled meeting Monday but did not discuss the protest or the school’s response. Before that public meeting, the board held a discussion that was not publicly advertised and that a parent and a reporter were barred from attending.
Under New Jersey’s open meetings law, public bodies such as school boards must notify the public before all meetings and hold a public vote before going into a closed session. North Star’s board did not appear to take either of those steps before its private meeting Monday.
North Star spokesperson Barbara Martinez said the school takes students’ concerns seriously. The temporary shift to remote learning was meant to create time for student reflection and individual meetings, she said, adding that families could choose to talk to staff in person or over the phone.
The school “wanted to give our seniors and juniors what we believed to be the most effective time and attention to fully discuss and process their concerns as we moved to collaborate on solutions that feel meaningful to them,” Martinez said in a statement.
North Star has a longer school year than many districts, she added, so students will receive the mandatory 180 days of instruction even without this week’s remote learning days.
Students shut out after protest
Hundreds of students at the high-performing charter school walked out of the Lincoln Park High School campus Friday morning and held a rally nearby at Newark’s City Hall.
At the rally, students and a former teacher said several Black teachers have left the school in recent years because they felt disrespected or objected to the school’s exacting rules and discipline policies. Some students said the school can feel overly controlling and insensitive to the particular concerns of Black faculty and students.
When students returned to school about an hour after walking out, they were not allowed to reenter. Top officials appeared to be aware of the decision to put the building on lockdown: Julie Jackson, the president of Uncommon Schools, the organization that manages North Star, was on the Lincoln Park campus meeting with staffers and students during the protest.
“They had us locked down in the building,” said a staff member, whose name is being withheld to avoid retaliation. “I was like, ‘This is nuts.’”
Later that afternoon, Principal Tildi Sharp and another administrator emailed families about the walkout. They said the action was meant to show support for “Black Lives and Black teachers,” and while school leaders did not endorse the walkout, they respect students’ “First Amendment rights to express their views on this important topic,” according to a copy of the email viewed by Chalkbeat.
The email also said the Newark Police Department was aware of the walkout, and the school would continue to share information about walkouts “as needed.”
“Parents are also encouraged to consider discussing safety risks and consequences associated with the choice to leave school for these events, as well as their expectations for school attendance,” the administrators wrote.
In her statement to Chalkbeat, Martinez said the email to families was meant to convey that student safety is the school’s top priority, to inform parents about the protocols if students leave the building, and to note that students who did not walk out continued learning.
Some students said they felt the administration had taken a “divide and conquer” approach this week by meeting individually with students or in small groups to discuss the protest rather than holding a town hall-style forum. However, other students said the smaller meetings were productive.
Jasmine Perryman, an 11th grader who spoke at Friday’s rally, said she and her father were asked to meet on campus with the principal and an Uncommon Schools official whose name she did not know. She said the administrators were receptive and took notes as she raised several concerns, including the turnover rate among Black teachers and academic policies some students consider too rigid.
“It seemed like they were attentive, it seemed like they were willing to listen,” she said. “But now what’s next is seeing the change.”
But other students said they received a less sympathetic response. The principal asked one parent how a student who participated in the protest could continue to represent the school in extracurricular competitions if the student is openly critical of the school, according to someone with knowledge of the conversation who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation.
Martinez said students who joined in the walkout can continue participating in school activities. North Star administrators held dozens of meetings with students and parents this week “to ensure our students felt seen and heard,” she added in her statement.
She also said the school is taking steps to address students’ concerns about teacher diversity, discipline, and mental health.
This school year, two-thirds of North Star teachers identified as people of color, Martinez said — an increase from previous years and three times the national rate. The organization also plans to expand the high school’s restorative justice pilot program, which allows students and faculty to discuss conflicts and agree on solutions. The high school also intends to further involve students in school policies, and explore other ways to support students’ mental health in addition to the school’s two social workers and a free telecounseling service available to all North Star high schoolers.
This week, some administrators also visited ninth and 10th grade classrooms to discuss the walkout, students said.
Miriam, the ninth-grader whose mother allowed her to participate in the protest, said the administrator who spoke to her class commended students for speaking up and said no one would be punished for walking out. However, Miriam said the administrator — a North Star middle school principal who appeared to have been asked to speak with the ninth graders — said the protest leaders did not know the full story behind the staff departures and could have continued speaking with school leaders rather than stage a walkout.
“It was kind of condescending,” Miriam said. “They made us feel like we were wrong for going out and protesting.”
Patrick Wall is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city and across New Jersey. Contact Patrick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.