Tuesday, February 5th was an incredible day for politics and the democratic process in Newark’s South Ward. Voters turned out in large numbers to vote in the primary election for President of the United States. It was impressive. Even early in the morning it was clear that the turnout would be good. We all have a right to be proud and encouraged by the solid participation. From what we heard, there was high voter enthusiasm all over the ward. Citizens were pumped up by the prospects of making history. Barack Obama was on the ballot and voters were determined to make their voices heard in this precedent setting contest among democrats to select their candidate for president.
But there was another and perhaps equally important process taking place for part of the day at one of the South Ward election polling sites. At Maple Avenue School from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm there was a public hearing to give all residents—voters and non-voters alike— an opportunity to make their voices heard on the question of who will be the next Superintendent of Newark Public Schools. The people who showed up to speak deserve the highest commendation and the gratitude of the entire South Ward community for demonstrating an increasingly rare level of civic responsibility. The problem is that for such an important matter, far too many residents opted out and passed on the opportunity to help shape the future of thousands of our children.
Because the hours of 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm happen to also be the height of the rush hour for residents who vote after work we could see them pouring into Maple Avenue School to cast their ballots. Unfortunately most left without ever even poking their heads into the auditorium where the Superintendent Search Committee was conducting the public hearings. It was painful to watch. We winced in frustration. Particularly knowing that many of those who breezed by the sign-in table are dissatisfied parents whose children attend Newark Public Schools. And it was not so much that there was only a modest turnout for something to benefit our children—that has come to be expected—it was painful because they were right there, just a few feet away and chose to walk on by.
What does this mean in the context of that old political adage that all politics is local? Here we are faced with perhaps our most important local decision in more than a decade, and a national issue, taking place at the same time in the same place, roundly thumped it. And of course we realize that people are caught up in the legitimate excitement of the Obama campaign but that is precisely the reason that the auditorium should have been jam-packed.
There is virtually nothing in our community that is not affected by the quality of our schools and their product. Crime, taxes, culture, public services, economic development and overall quality of life all tie back, in part, to what schools do or don’t do. And what schools do or don’t do ties back to parent and public participation. School success or failure cannot be viewed in isolation. We all have a hand in it. Walking away is not a viable option. Neither is any other avoidance mechanism. We have to get involved.
So it was Election Day and people were in line, most waiting to vote for Barack Obama. You could not help but recall the ringing oratory and inspiring vision of Barack Obama. It is compelling and tantalizing. But perhaps even more compelling is the presentation of Michelle Obama who herself is a tough act to follow. Her stump speech is every bit as good as her husband’s. Michelle talks about her childhood and how she attended the public school right around the corner. She calls it a good school without which she would not be where she is today. She goes on to say that these good neighborhood schools is what ordinary people want. Is she right? Michelle Obama tells us that making these good schools available to all parents is one of the reasons that Barack is running for president. Do we believe that? It is confusing trying to understand how people (voters at Maple Avenue School) who claim to buy into this vision turn a blind eye to the process set up to give us “ordinary people” a say in creating these “good schools” right here in Newark.
We have commented before that our children have reasons to doubt our sincerity when we say we love them and want the best for them. There are too many signs to the contrary. Caring is not a video game, clothes or pocket money. True concern is keeping children safe from harm, sending them to school with instructions to behave and learn, going to see the teacher, and “attending public hearings.” Well, it’s something like that. So we should not be surprised in the least when children for whom we have shown no concern show no concern for us. Much of their antisocial behavior should be anticipated.
There is no issue before us that is more important than the education of our society beginning with our kids. Getting our systems of public education under productive control and seeding them with the very best leadership is essential. Anti-intellectual pedestrianism and the corruption of standards have taken a heavy toll on public education. Any real hope of reversing the fortunes of public schooling is necessarily tethered to the best efforts of active citizens. No saviors will be arriving anytime soon. Not even Barack Obama. We are either our own best friends or worst enemies. It doesn’t get any more basic than that. It’s time to do for self. Our kids are depending on us to show up for them. They want our vote of confidence and interest. One certainty is that so long as we fail them they are much more likely to fail themselves and us.
A brilliant woman educator warned us of a scary possibility a few years back. She said that we were entering upon a generation of people wherein many parents don’t believe in the ability of their own kids to succeed. This sounds inconceivable. But is it? In any event, civilized society has a duty to rise above the lowest expectations and create schools that foster the highest. There are two more public hearings to allow citizens to make their voices heard about the kind of leadership we want for our public schools. Please.
February 6, 2008