Patrick Wall, Chalkbeat Newark
NEWARK, NJ--Hundreds of students walked out of a Newark charter school and rallied outside City Hall on Friday to call attention to what students said is the frequent mistreatment of Black students and faculty.
Around 9 a.m., students began streaming out of the Lincoln Park High School campus of North Star Academy, which is New Jersey’s largest charter school operator with more than 6,000 students in Newark and Camden. After marching from the Central Ward campus to nearby City Hall, student organizers and a former teacher gave speeches about a culture of anti-Blackness they said pervades the school, while scores of students cheered and waved signs.
“We’re tired and we’ve been fed up,” 12th grader Kwadjo Otoo called out from the steps of the historic building, adding that some Black teachers and students continue to feel disrespected despite efforts by the charter operator’s leadership to address complaints about the schools. “Now they’re trying to pretend like something changed, but we know it’s the same school we’ve been going to forever now.”
Several students said multiple Black teachers over the years have left the school, which the students said is because the teachers felt overworked and undervalued. When well-liked Black teachers depart, their absence can leave students feeling isolated, they said.
“It’s very upsetting for us to build bonds with our teachers, to build relationships and connect,” said L. Drummond, a senior at the Lincoln Park campus, “and then see them chased out by the school.”
The school went into lockdown during the protest, and students who left were not allowed back in after they returned from City Hall. Locked out of school, the students began to disperse around 10:30 a.m.; some said they planned to walk home while others set out for a different North Star campus downtown.
Tasha Smith went to the school Friday morning to pick up her son, a 12th grader who joined in the protest, but said she was not allowed in the building.
“Nobody can come in or out,” she said, adding that she only learned about the students’ grievances because of the protest. “This is my first time hearing this, and I’m very upset.”
North Star spokesperson Barbara Martinez said in a statement that the type of advocacy students engaged in Friday can be a powerful learning experience.
“We believe in and tell our students that their voice matters, and we respect their peaceful protest today,” she said. “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.”
North Star Academy, which is part of the Uncommon Schools network of charter schools, is one of New Jersey’s oldest and highest-achieving charter schools. In the 2019-20 school year, 83% of North Star students were Black, 15% Hispanic, and more than 86% were economically disadvantaged, according to state data, yet the students routinely outperform their peers in wealthier districts on state standardized tests.
But like other so-called “no excuses” charter schools, North Star has long had a reputation for strict discipline along with its demanding academic program. In 2019-20, the most recent year with available state data, nearly 19% of North Star students received suspensions — a rate about six times higher than the average across New Jersey or in the Newark school district.
After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 drew widespread attention to anti-Black racism in all facets of American society, many young people took to social media to recount instances of racism at school. Current and former students and staff members at Uncommon Schools began sharing their experiences through an Instagram account called Black at Uncommon, where many described a school culture that felt overly controlling and occasionally unwelcoming to Black people.
Julie Jackson, the president of Uncommon Schools, which also oversees charter schools in New York and Boston, published a letter to the school community in July 2020 saying she had read the accounts of negative experiences at some schools. Writing that “we must resolve and work to be an anti-racist organization,” Jackson, who is Black, promised a series of immediate actions. The steps included hiring a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant; reviewing the curriculum to make sure it reflects students’ cultures; and training employees to create a school culture “where all students and staff feel respected, valued, and cared for.”
On Friday, some students at the Newark protest said they saw some evidence of those steps, such as staff members being assigned to read a book about the harsh disciplining of Black students. But others questioned how deep the changes really went. For instance, instead of sending some students home for suspension, North Star now puts them in “on-site learning,” essentially an in-school suspension where students spend the entire day in one room, students said.
Aubria King, an 11th grader who is a member of Lincoln Park High School’s student council, said the school had given students a little more freedom since 2020. However, the school’s strict discipline and heavy workload continue to take a toll on students, she said.
“They do provide us with a good education and we are getting into these great schools,” she said. “But it comes at a cost and that cost is our mental health and the way that we’re being treated.”
Martinez, the Uncommon Schools spokesperson, said the organization hired a company that provides every student with access to counseling.
Across the organization, 45% of staff members identify as Black or African American and 67% identify as non-white, Martinez added.
Despite the large percentage of employees of color, at least one former teacher said the school sometimes felt hostile to Black people. At the rally, Tasha Grant, who taught theater at North Star until 2020, said she felt censored and policed at the school.
“You all deserve Black educators that don’t get pushed out of these systems,” she told students outside of city hall. “You all deserve to be in classrooms that nurture you and keep you safe.”
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.