NEWARK, NJ — Families with students enrolled in the North Ward’s Branch Brook Elementary received notice this month that the award-winning school will become an early childhood center as of September 2020, requiring students to relocate as the district reconfigures its locations.
Parents expressed dismay with the decision at the Board of Education's latest business meeting, saying that the window between the district's Dec. 4 closure announcement and the Newark Enrolls period, which opened Dec. 7 and ends Feb. 14, does not provide ample time to make a new school choice.
Roberto Cabanas, a NJ Communities United organizer who advocated for the parents, urged the board to consider a more gradual phasing out of students. “It’s one of our best schools in the district as we see in the absentee data, they’re doing really great work,” he said.
Branch Brook, a National Blue Ribbon school, currently serves pre-K to fourth grade and is known for its student performance and small class sizes. In the days of the NJ Ask standardized assessment, it was the only elementary school in Newark to see all third and fourth graders achieve passing scores. That success rate has carried into the PARCC era, with third and fourth graders outperforming both the district and state in math in 2019. PARCC and NJSLA scores for Branch Brook students have remained consistently above average for the district.
Joven Wright, whose daughter started first grade at Branch Brook this September, said she wishes she had known the school was slated to close when she was navigating the Newark Enrolls process last year.
“When I moved to the city of Newark, I had my mind made up that my children would not attend a Newark public school. I was urged by some community members that there are some great schools in Newark, so I looked through the test scores, took my child out of private school and enrolled her in Branch Brook,” she said. “My frustration is the way that it was handled. The superintendent stated himself, we don’t want to keep moving students from school to school to school.
According to Superintendent Roger Leon, the decision to disband Branch Brook was not an easy one, but ultimately necessary as the district adds two new schools to its offerings. The early childhood center currently stationed at the Gladys Hillman-Jones School on Crane Street will relocate to the Branch Brook site to make way for the new School of Global Studies, which opens its doors at the start of the 2020-2021 school year.
Leon added Gladys-Hillman-Jones is better suited as a high school, which the North Ward desperately needs. State law mandates that pre-K classrooms only be located on the first floor of a building, leaving most of the Gladys Hillman-Jones School unoccupied. Branch Brook, which is only one story, was chosen for its small size, making it an ideal space for an early childhood center.
With only nine classes and about 174 students spread across pre-K to fourth grade, relocating Branch Brook students is also the least disruptive option for the district. NBOE considered phasing out the students over a three-year period but came to the conclusion that the North Ward's need for an early childhood center is more urgent.
“Ultimately, when dealing with 22 years of state control, a lot of the buildings that were once used in parts of the city were being utilized for reasons they should have never been used for, thus creating these types of situations for the district,” board member Reginald Bledsoe said. “Keeping consistent with the theme of equity, we want to continue the practice of having an early childhood center in every ward.”
Leon expressed that high priority will be given to Branch Brook students as they select new schools through the Newark Enrolls process to relocate for the next school year.