By Coming Together, Parents Can Make a Difference in Improving Newark’s Public Schools
By Nahlee Smith
Last November I joined five other Newark women in a fight for our kids’ education. While we all come from different backgrounds and families, we have two important things in common – we are not satisfied with our City’s public schools and we are tired of being ignored.
I know that there are caring and effective teachers in Newark public schools, but for me, their hard work was overshadowed after an incident involving my youngest son. One day, he ran home after school, burst into the house and was in tears about six words that would forever change me. He showed me a picture he drew in class and said, “my teacher said this looked stupid.” While I would later learn that I was not alone – that many Newarkers share heartbreaking stories like this – I will never forget the pain, frustration, and loneliness I felt listening to my child.
In Newark, it is easy to feel angry if you are a parent with a child in our school system.
We see it every day. Our schools have been under state control for over twenty years, which means decisions about our children have been made in Trenton, far outside our community. And if Newark parents look deeper into our school system, as I did after that terrible experience with my son, they will find more problems stemming from our state’s so-called leaders.
For example, many parents in Newark don’t realize there are state laws regarding education that actually allow for the dysfunction we have all experienced. Specifically, when our schools have to lay off teachers, there’s a law that requires teachers are cut blindly, based only on how long they have been on the job – it’s called “last in, first out.” When I found out this means that the law actually protects ineffective teachers from being removed from Newark schools while effective teachers are let go instead, I went ballistic!
This makes no sense for families in Newark, especially because, unfortunately, many of us have seen our kids in classrooms with teachers who aren’t effective. In every field, in every job, each of us is judged by the work we do, not how long we have been there. There are workers who are good and some who are bad – and the ones who are bad do not make it. Period. We should do everything we can to keep the teachers who are doing a great job in Newark Public Schools. And, if a teacher is not helping students learn, regardless of how long they have been on the job, I do not want them to continue teaching my child.
As I learned more and began hearing similar frustrations from other parents, I thought about the options for my kids. I do not have the money for private school. I do not have the money to move to another town. So instead of accepting state control and these insane state laws, six of us decided to come together and actually do something about it.
We want the voices of Newark parents to be heard in Trenton, possibly for the first time in decades. We want our children to have the best possible teachers so that all kids are stimulated and encouraged in our schools. We want an education system that brings celebration, not frustration and isolation. And if Trenton is going to accept teachers who tell a child that his hard work is “stupid,” I am going to fight. Newark is a city of activism, with a long history of people coming together and fighting against those who do not have the community’s interest at heart! Using the practices of others Newarkers as a guide, we are choosing to do something about it.
By coming together with other parents to share our outrage, our voices became stronger – and now we are making history with a lawsuit against the State of New Jersey, in hopes of changing how our education system protects ineffective teachers. If we can change this law, we can keep our great teachers here, and work to bring better and more diverse teachers to Newark.
This lawsuit is about more than going after an unfair law. We are doing this work because we want parents to have a stronger voice, and we want that voice to be heard by leaders in Newark, Trenton, and beyond. Since joining this lawsuit, I have bonded with other parents who share my concerns, and our children have bonded as well. There is strength in our numbers.
When I think of the work we are doing, I sometimes imagine we are climbing a mountain together, and we keep each other going. This fight to change the teacher layoff law is only the beginning. After that, we are not backing down off this mountain. We are not quitting. We are going to keep on climbing until every child is provided with a great teacher and a great classroom for learning.
Nahlee Smith is one of six Newark public school parents who filed HG v. Harrington, the historic lawsuit that asks that the state of New Jersey to end the statutory mandate for “Last In, First Out” teacher layoffs. The lawsuit was filed on November 1, 2016. This month, a short animated video was released to explain the LIFO law to New Jersey public school parents.