NEWARK, NJ - As residents prepare to vote on April 16 to fill three school board seats, 11 candidates tried to distinguish themselves during two student-moderated forums.

Students from seven Newark high schools and organizations: ALI Youth Media Symposium, Leadership Newark Junior Fellowship Program, Newark Youth Council and Sadie Nash Leadership Program, posed questions to the candidates at the Newark Trust for Education’s annual school board candidate forum.

Newark for Education Equity and Diversity (NEED) partnered with the Newark Student Union (NSU) for their debate on March 26. Together, students discussed their concerns for education and developed their own questions for candidates.

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Tave Padilla is running for reelection alongside A’Dorian Murray-Thomas and Shayvonne Anderson on the mayor’s Moving Newark Schools Forward slate. Leah Owens is running for reelection with Denise Cole and Saafir Jenkins on the “Children Over Politics” team. Candidates Maggie Freeman, Priscilla Garces, Arlene J. Ramsey, Yolanda Johnson, and Denise A. Crawford are running as independents.

The topics were varied and the questions touched upon accountability, mental health support for students, budget and finance topics and a moratorium to curb charter expansion.

Here are some highlights:

School board accountability

“I’m a firm believer that the board, not the superintendent, should hold any and everyone in our buildings accountable,” said Tave Padilla, third-year school board member running for reelection. “I do not believe that any administrator in any building should put a child or a parent to the side. So I would work diligently, collectively with my board to make sure that happens.”

Dissatisfied with his initial response to her question about holding board members accountable, student moderator Immaneula Antwi, rephrased her question to ask, “How do we make sure that you do what you’re saying? How do we and our families hold you accountable?”

Padilla responded, “What do you want? Just ask. I have email. Give me something specific you want...I guess you would have to email the questions that way we have a paper trail.” The audience bemoaned his response.

Candidate Yolanda Johnson was particularly disturbed and used her question about student wellness to address Padilla’s interaction with the student moderator. “When you blow students off like what he did here tonight, that’s an issue. What I plan to do is write that up tonight and file a complaint against our current board member who blew off a student and would not answer as such,” she explained.

At the debate hosted by NEED and NSU last Thursday, Saafir Jenkins vehemently expressed that as a board member, he would be beholden to his constituents alone. Jenkins describes himself as a “collaborator” and says that his choice to run on a team stems from a deep appreciation of teamwork, devoid of special interest.

“I have not been tapped on the shoulder, nor am I supported by any other people but the grassroots community I serve. Those of us who value the members of our community, the students in our schools, parents, educators, we’re here today,” said Jenkins.

Candidates A’Dorian Murray-Thomas, Tave Padilla, Shayvonne Anderson, and Denise Cole were not present at the March 26 debate.

Achievement gaps and (lack of) equity in Newark Public Schools

During her time as chair of the program instruction committee on the school board, Leah Owen’s said one of her proudest  initiatives was an in-depth analysis of class sizes in the district that exposed some schools’ access to more than one instructor for larger classrooms.

Owens and the team prodded further to study the equity in magnet schools and clearly saw the data (which supported speculation) of the underrepresentation of black male students at Science Park High School.

“We were also able to see when it came to Science Park and Technology high schools that over half of students enrolled in both magnet schools came from two zip codes: 07105 and 07104,” said Owens.

The Ironbound (07105) and Forrest Hill (07104) neighborhood are markedly white and Hispanic compared to the rest of the city, especially the predominantly black University Heights neighborhood in the Central Ward (07103) where the campus is located. The Ironbound and Forest Hill neighborhood have lower unemployment, higher education attainment, and household incomes.

When asked what she would do to specifically target the achievement gaps between NPS and schools in surrounding districts, Murray-Thomas noted persistent achievement gaps through the Newark’s public schools. She suggested that focus should be certain on serving all kids and expanding co-curricular activities for a richer schooling experience.

“I find that often we focus on those doing exceptionally well or those who are severely underperforming. But we need to serve all sectors of kids,” said Murray-Thomas.

“So beyond learning things in class and preparing for tests, [we need to] have more extracurriculars, have more civics, things that are going to prepare them to be the leaders that you all are and many of the young people in the audience here are to be the change in our city,” she stated.

Social-emotional support and trauma-informed care

Half-way through the forum, Shayvonne Anderson stepped out of the room for a few minutes leaving other candidates and audience members wondering where she had gone. When she returned to join the rest of the candidates, Anderson graciously explained.

She was having a panic attack, a consequence of the traumatic childhood she endured.

“This is why trauma-informed care is very important to me. I have grown up that way and to the age I am, dealing with the effects of that,” said Anderson. “It's important that we find what’s going on with our students and what type of things they're dealing with at home before we can educate them. We have to deal with the emotional needs that they have.”

Denise Cole echoed similar sentiments and believes that there should be more equity involved in dealing with students’ mental health struggles. During her time as an educator at Camden Street School and a student in Newark Public Schools, Cole recalled effective school crisis counselors and psychologists who helped students better manage their emotions.

“Under trauma-informed care, we bring in guidance counselors, social workers and bring professional training for all. Not just teachers, students too so they can help identify what’s wrong with their peers and bring it to adults’ attention,” Cole said.

Charter schools and moratorium to curb charter school expansion

Charter schools in the city educate about 35% of students in Newark. Enrollment is projected to grow, as is their portion of the district’s budget which is currently projected to be $288 million for the ensuing school year. Public opinion and debate between pro-public school advocates and pro-charter school advocates border the cusp of increased transparency and collaboration or the edge of contention.

“I am tired of seeing charter schools pop up, open up, and don't last no more than nine months. They’re closing, leaving our students and our families to scuffle on where they're going to put their child if their child is going to move forward to college, if their child is going to have summer school,” said Johnson. “I am for the moratorium on charters specifically because we need all our funding in comprehensive schools,” she continued.

Approximately 750 students needed new schools at the end of the 2016-2017 school year when Newark Prep, Paulo Frier, and Merit Prep charter schools closed largely due to poor academic performance. Lady Liberty Charter School closed at the end of the 2018 school year and left 455 students to find a new school.

The conversation needs to be recentered on students with the sharing of best practices being at the forefront of that charge, which Owens believes has not been the conversation for the last 10 plus years.

“We have seen different types of reforms, what has been referred to as market-based reforms that are about closing schools, consolidating schools, colocation of schools,” she said. “None of that has anything to do with the education that occurs in classrooms.”

The Newark Trust for Education expects to post the full video of the candiadate's forum on its Campaign Central website by Friday.