Nary is there a moment Johnnie Lattner is not in some way working to improve the lives of Newark school children. Or, for that matter, standing at a mic in the Brick City doing just that.
In mid-October, he headed into a meeting of the Alliance for Newark Public Schools - an organization made up of activists groups. He will soon attend the next school board meeting on Oct 29 where he plans to address a myriad of topics surrounding facility improvements. The Board of Education estimates that Newark schools will require more than $311 million in repairs.
And for the remainder of the fall, he will sit at a series of roundtables to discuss what’s on the purview for Newark public schools in the next decade.
With dates coming up this fall to discuss what’s on the purview for the Newark school district in the next decade, Lattner says he can’t waste any time.
His gruff demeanor responds in the affirmative when asked if he’s a parent: “The thousands of children that attend Newark public schools...I am their parent,” he told TAPInto Newark, while laughing.
Lattner, who co-founded Parents Unified for Local School Education (PULSE) along with Sharon Smith, has been a Newark resident for over 12 years. He’s also connected to Journey for Justice, Alliance to Reclaim our Schools, and previously contributed to the Statewide Education Organizing Committee and the Boys and Girls Club of Newark.
Hailing originally from North Carolina, he says he’s always had a passion for making change.
“When I came to Newark, I really began to see that if you’re not at the table you don’t really get a voice,” Lattner said.
The yearning for change led Lattner to a facility outside of San Francisco, California, where he received training from Midwest Academy around 2005. The program specializes in helping orient activists with the tools needed to enact change regardless of the social or political climate they’re confronting.
“I learned how to work collectively and how to create good leaders by listening,” Lattner noted. “It wasn’t just about improving myself, but instilling change in future leaders too.”
Since gaining such knowledge, Lattner has moved onto some major milestones.
In 2014, PULSE carried out a historic boycott of Newark Public Schools. The organization filed an Office of Civil Rights Complaint in 2012 and 2014, with parents and student Donald Jackson. In 2015, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) concluded that African American students and students with disabilities were being disproportionately affected by school closures in 2012. OCR also found that students did not benefit from the closing of schools.
Lattner says since that win and others like it, three components come to mind when mulling the state of education in the Brick City. The first is the inclusion of parents, students and the community when it comes to making decisions that impact the district.
“I want to avoid the illusion of inclusion, where the principles of change are not on the same page as everyone else when they say they want to make a difference,” Lattner said, “It doesn’t matter if you choose a charter, public, or private school, the decision-makers need to be more open and community-friendly.”
The other two factors he feels are important are the involvement of elected officials and additional financial investments made by Newark corporations toward recent local graduates.
Although it may be a storied journey, Lattner’s endeavors haven't all panned out. In 2018, he unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the school board. This past April, when a trio of mayor-backed candidates celebrated a victory, he said he was “upset at the process.” However, Lattner said, as of now he does not plan to run for a seat again.
Also as schools opened for the new school year in September, Lattner was part of a group protesting the school board hinting at banning disorderly parents from meetings and urge answers be provided regarding the ongoing Newark lead crisis.
“I plan to ask about the lead at the next school board meeting. I also want to address the home selection teachers for the special needs students, and the fact they’re [teaching] in the evening now,” he said. “I think that’s dangerous for the teachers, and not an ideal time for students either.”
Before he could finish listing off the many items on his agenda, Lattner paused to catch his breath. “One thing with me,” he continued, “is that I am a fighter.”
The aforementioned roundtables, hosted by the Newark Public Schools will be held Oct 23, Nov 21 and Dec 11. For more information visit www.nps.k12.nj.us. Lattner also said PULSE will host an equity bus tour in mid-November with elected officials, parents, and teachers. For updates check the PULSE Facebook page.