Several New Jersey teens seeking to oust state-appointed Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson are planning to take further action after they say state leaders diverted attention away from their demands at a recent meeting.
Newark student Kristin Towkaniuk, a member of the student-led Newark Students Union, was one of several students who met with Anderson and New Jersey's Acting Education Commissioner David Hespe to talk about their concerns for the district Tuesday. Towkaniuk said student union members provided the education leaders with a list of demands that included a call for Anderson’s immediate removal, a request that the controversial One Newark school reorganization plan be halted, and a demand that students be given an opportunity to help choose the next state-appointed superintendent.
“I’ve never heard one student say ‘I like Cami Anderson,’” Newark student Kristin Towkaniuk told The Huffington Post over the phone. “I’ve heard people say they don’t know about her, but all the responses I’ve ever heard were either negative or unknowing.”
Anderson's One Newark plan, which was unveiled in December, seeks to create more school choice in the district and increases the influence of charter schools, while consolidating and remodeling other existing schools. Instead, the students want the implementation of an alternative plan, the Newark Promise plan, which emphasizes local control of the state-run district and facility upgrades.
However, according to the students, state leaders diverted the conversation away from their demands and tried to explain the reason for their policies. Now the students say they are planning to “escalate” their actions in hopes they can persuade the district to reverse course (though they're not yet sure how they will do this).
“We had the meeting,” Towkaniuk said. “We showed multiple sides of us by sitting down and having civic discourse. But at the same time our actions will always be louder than words, it gets more attention.”
After the meeting, the Newark School District released a statement saying that “Superintendent Anderson and district staff are always willing and eager to meet with students especially in search of common ground when there are concerns and disagreements.” Similarly, a statement from Commissioner Hespe said it “crucial for community stakeholders to be given the opportunity to have input into important education issues, and to have education officials answer their questions.”
While the Newark Students Union has been in existence since March 2013, it has recently received increased attention for its members' resistance efforts again the One Newark plan. A number of outlets covered the group's sit-in of the Newark School Board meeting last week, in which their disruption forced the meeting to end early. That same night, they camped out at the district's headquarters in protest and received a visit from Newark Mayor-elect Ras Baraka, who has also famously opposed the One Newark plan.
However, at the time, Anderson speculated that adults who opposed her administration coached the students. Over the phone, Towkaniuk called the claim “utterly disrespectful.”
Still, amid the students’ protests and Baraka's election, there has been increased speculation that Anderson’s days with the district are numbered (although representatives for the district maintain that she has no plans of stepping down).
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a supporter of Anderson, would not speak about the superintendent’s future with the district at a press conference last week.
“I have always backed Cami Anderson, and she was complimented by me in the State of the State speech just a few months ago,” the governor said, according to NJ Spotlight. “I am not going to get into those issues, because we are in a tenuous contract period.”
He also said he believes the One Newark plan should proceed as planned.
“A few students sitting in the offices doesn’t concern me about the efficacy of Cami Anderson’s plan,” he said. “It is a good plan, and students have a right to protest, as they always have.”