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Students Occupy Newark School Offices, Demand Firings

Students from Newark Public Schools have set up shop in the offices of Superintendent Cami Anderson, demanding that the superintendent immediately step down and that New Jersey relinquish control of the school district back to local voters. The mayor and local teachers are rallying behind the students, with one union representative saying an illegal strike is within the realm of possibility.

The high-profile protest began Tuesday night, when a handful of students started camping out on the eighth floor of Newark’s public school headquarters building, the same floor as the offices of Superintendent Cami Anderson and other top officials. They have stayed in the building through two consecutive nights, and show no signs yet of being ready to leave.

The demonstrators include at least six Newark public school students, who are skipping class in order to attend the protest. They demand Anderson’s immediate resignation, and also want control of Newark’s public schools to be returned to the city. Since 1995, Newark’s public schools have been run directly by the state, and this has caused increasing friction with the local community.

Video of the ongoing protest has been uploaded to YouTube, showing the students settled into the offices in front of a large banner demanding “FULL LOCAL CONTROL.”

The students have seen significant support from locals, including Newark mayor Ras Baraka, who has also called for Anderson to resign in the past.

“I applaud the efforts of our young people who are enacting their democratic rights to oppose what is happening here in this city. We’re not going to allow them to be starved [or] to be arrested,” said Baraka.

John Abeigon, director of organization of the Newark Teachers Union (NTU), said the students enjoyed “100 percent” support from the union.

“We believe that Cami Anderson and [former mayor] Sen. Cory Booker are co-conspirators in the ‘reform for profit’ movement that’s going on in urban districts throughout the country,” Abeigon told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

Newark’s schools, long among the lowest-performing in the state, have become a flashpoint in the national battle over how to reform and improve public schools. In 2010, they received a massive $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to finance an ambitious turnaround plan dubbed “One Newark,” which Anderson was placed at the head of. The One Newark plan has attempted to radically reform Newark’s education system by closing or relocating failing schools, while also opening new charter schools and making big staff reshuffles.

Critics say One Newark is gutting traditional neighborhood schools and running roughshod over the interests of the community, while enriching consultants and for-profit educators.

“When you aren’t using money to improve schools, you end up spending money on friends that own education consulting outfits,” Abeigon said. “[Anderson] has $37 million in consulting fees.”

Defenders of One Newark and state control of the city’s schools point out that it was the district’s own failures that led to the state’s takeover, but Abeigon said that explanation no longer holds water.

“The state has been here for 20-plus years, so each time they say ‘Well, the schools weren’t performing all that better before, which before were they talking about?'” he said.

It’s unclear what Anderson plans to do if the protesters continue to remain defiant. The district has allowed the students to receive food from outside, though supporters have complained that the food has been needlessly held up for hours in an effort to make the students uncomfortable and “starve” them out.

In addition, the district has also been sending letters to the students’ parents asking that they pick up their children and return them to school.

Abeigon said that if the students end up being forcibly removed from the building, it could spark wider protests in the city. Even a strike, though unlikely, isn’t beyond the realm of impossibility, he said. While New Jersey law prohibits public school teachers from striking, “that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t do it.”

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