How many signatures would it take to stop a school closure?
How many parents coming to meetings would it take to stop a school closure?
How many parental votes would it take to stop a school closure?
There are no answers to these questions because the Camden School District has steadfastly refused to be accountable in any concrete manner to the parents it claims to serve. But based off of this video from a meeting held at a school being taken over, we do know two things: 1) We know that in Camden, as in Newark, Philadelphia and New Orleans before it, local institutions, teachers and schools are deeply valued by their communities and 2) we have concrete evidence that Camden’s state-appointed Superintendent is incapable of reaching out and being accountable to parents in the schools he is closing.
Over and over, these parents express how deeply they value McGraw. One p arent asks why they can’t keep the teachers. Another talks about the wonderful music and arts programs. A third explains that when she was in the Camden public school system, she had a teacher she loved and that that teacher is now the principal at McGraw. A fourth teacher asks why the principal has to leave at all. A fifth parent laments, “why come here and discombobulate our home?”
Right now, there is a raging debate in Camden about what a great school is, but that quote, at 16:47 is a powerful reminder that sometimes schools are more than test-score factories. Camden parents see these schools as home. What a testimony to the value of having long-lasting institutions with deep roots in the neighborhood, and to the value parents find in that very thing.
It makes a sharp contrast with the newcomers standing in front of the community. Early on in the meeting, a parent asks, “you don’t even know nobody’s [sic] name in here, do you?” (2:29)
This speaks to a larger problem in Camden. The Camden School District central office has been gutted of local educators. What is obvious from this meeting, and from the events of the last year and a half, is that replacing a local educators with young, inexperienced staff from other locations makes it virtually impossible to effectively dialogue with parents. Even if you want to give the benefit of the doubt to these administrators (that they want to listen), they do not have the history, skills or knowledge of the Camden community to make that happen.
Take, for example, these school closures. Over the past few weeks, the school district held meetings to discuss what was going to happen at “struggling schools.” I attended two of those meetings, and not a single parent from the “struggling schools” stood up to speak. That is a tremendous failure on behalf of the district. While there were parents at those meetings, most of them already attended Mastery Schools. While it is wonderful to give voice to those parents, it is wrong to give them voice at the exclusion of the voice of others. Even if that exclusion is because the district is incapable of reaching other parents, not because of malicious intent. Exclusion is exclusion.
This is the fundamental failure of the Camden School District. The staff and superintendent are only capable of engaging the parents that agree with the District’s new preference for Renaissance schools. Parents and community members who do not are disenfranchised. The new District staff has neither the experience within the community to reach these parents, nor the inclination to give any power to these people. The district is completely unaccountable to its traditional school parents.
At 18:21 a parent asks, “do we have a say-so [sic]?” Superintendent Rouhanifard responds, “If you talk to parents at the Mastery schools, they are empowered…” but the McGraw parents cut him off and say, “we want you to talk to us.”
It’s a powerful moment, one that shows how the parents who agree with the district’s vision are empowered, while those who disagree are disenfranchised.
There is no more clear example of the need for democracy then this, that those with power and privilege are incapable of hearing those without it. It is telling then that when the parent asks again, “do we have a say-so?” Superintendent Rouhanifard responds, “This is a decision that I have made.”
This is why I stand with Camden parents and call for there to be some democratic check upon the school closure and takeover decisions being made by the district. The job of superintendent is not to be a dictator or a colonialist, it is to work with the people in the district. If this superintendent is incapable of doing that, there needs to be some recourse for parents.
That could be a parental vote. Or a bar set for petitions that if crossed, would allow schools to remain open.
It is unacceptable to have a central office making decision when it is incapable of reaching or listening to the people it serves. At 34:23, local organizer Gary Frazier stands up and tells Paymon he has a petition with 500 parental signatures from McGraw and East Camden parents, a number that would be a majority within the two schools if true.
How many parental votes would it take to keep the school open?
The inability of the district to answer that question shows that they have no intention to listen to the parents they serve.