four years later

Pomp, circumstance, and Snapple for Democracy Prep grads

Democracy Prep graduates holding diplomas and Snapple.
Democracy Prep graduates holding diplomas and Snapple.

Unsurprisingly for a school that prides itself on taking students on trips in four continents before graduation, Democracy Prep Charter High School covered a lot of ground in its first commencement.

The three-hour ceremony, held Monday at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, featured accolades for the 46 graduating seniors, a ceremonial passing of the hat for the charter network’s founder, and a video screening by the secretary general of the United Nations.

Ban Ki-Moon, the secretary general of the United Nations, delivered the keynote address. After speaking about the value of good education, he told graduates he has “always dreamed of appearing live at the Apollo,” then whipped out a music video of Beyonce singing in a U.N. music video.

The video was a humorous interlude in a ceremony packed with pomp and circumstance. Graduates wore yellow caps and gowns to reflect the school’s colors, and after reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, they and everyone in the audience were were instructed to “place your hands over your logos” to recite the Democracy Prep pledge, which begins, “I pledge allegiance to my future …”

That future is different from what it would have been had the students not attended Democracy Prep for middle and high school, school officials said during the graduation ceremony. In one video shown at the event, a senior said many of her classmates from elementary school are not graduating from high school now, and she credited Democracy Prep for making the difference for her.

Of the 80 students who entered the high school in 2009, all from Democracy Prep middle schools, 46 students graduated on Monday, each with acceptances to four-year colleges in hand. School officials could not immediately say what happened to the other 34 students who entered four years ago but said some remained enrolled at the school while others had transferred away.

The seniors are not the only ones moving on. It was also a big day for the network’s founding chief executive officer, Seth Andrew, as he handed over the reins — in the form of his hallmark yellow cap — to Katie Duffy, who will serve as the network’s new leader. When this year’s graduates decided to attend Democracy Prep, Andrew said, “there was no school, there was no building.” Today the network’s schools serve 1,600 students.

Andrew is now preparing to launch Alumni Revolution, a new nonprofit designed to support first-generation college students through college.

The challenge of making the transition from a small, tight-knit high school to the wider world of college was a major theme of the graduation ceremony.

Sixth-grader Kaity Fernandez explained that she and the other non-seniors at the graduation had earned their seats through good behavior. Students have to earn their seats in the classroom as well, a tradition referenced more than once during graduation speeches.

“We don’t run the school like a democracy, we prepare you for one,” Andrew told the graduates.

“As you graduate our relationship will change,” English teacher Damion Clark told the graduates. “After today we are fellow adults, colleagues.”

Graduates said that’s exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time. Geneses Bello, who’s headed to McDaniel College in Maryland next year, said she is anxious about losing the structure and support that Democracy Prep provides.

“I’m nervous about time management, not having the support system I have here, and being on my own,” she said.


Several juniors said that seeing the seniors makes them more excited to be seniors and go to college. But sixth graders, wowed by the Apollo, said it’s hard to imagine being as independent as the seniors will have to be next year.

“Now if you need help they’re going to come and tutor you,” Michael Jones explained. “And they ask questions to see if you’re getting the train of thought. In sixth grade they tell you what to do and how to do it. When you get to college you have to figure it out on your own.”

Already, Democracy Prep’s first set of graduates are taking advantage of their new authority. The student graduation speaker, Steven Medina, who will attend Middlebury College on a full scholarship next year, said Andrew had broken one promise that he made to the founding class: When they were in middle school, Medina recalled, Andrew had promised students a Snapple machine if they earned it, and the machine never materialized.

Later, Andrew made good on his promise by rolling out tables laden with bottles of Snapples for the graduation class, who were grateful for a drink on the hottest day yet this year.


Newark schools would get $37.5 million boost under Gov. Murphy’s budget plan

PHOTO: OIT/Governor's Office
Gov. Phil Murphy gave his first budget address on Tuesday.

Newark just got some good news: Gov. Phil Murphy wants to give its schools their biggest budget increase since 2011.

State funding for the district would grow by 5 percent — or $37.5 million — next school year under Murphy’s budget plan, according to state figures released Thursday. Overall, state aid for K-12 education in Newark would rise to $787.6 million for the 2018-19 school year.

The funding boost could ease financial strain on the district, which has faced large deficits in recent years as more students enroll in charter schools — taking a growing chunk of district money with them. At the same time, the district faced years of flat funding from the state, which provides Newark with most of its education money.

“This increase begins to restore the deep cuts made to teaching and support staff and essential programs for students in district schools over the last seven years,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, who noted that a portion of the increase would go to Newark charter schools.

Newark’s boost is part of a nearly $284 million increase that Murphy is proposing for the state’s school-aid formula, which has not been properly funded since 2009. In the budget outline he released Tuesday, Murphy said the increase was the first installment in a four-year plan to fully fund the formula, which calls for about $1 billion more than the state currently spends on education.

Even with Murphy’s proposed boost, Newark’s state aid would still be about 14 percent less than what it’s entitled to under the formula, according to state projections.

Murphy, a Democrat, is counting on a series of tax hikes and other revenue sources — including legalized marijuana — to pay for his budget, which increases state spending by 4.2 percent over this fiscal year. He’ll need the support of his fellow Democrats who control the state legislature to pass those measures, but some have expressed concerns about parts of Murphy’s plan — in particular, his proposal to raise taxes on millionaires. They have until June 30 to agree on a budget.

In the meantime, Newark and other school districts will use the figures from Murphy’s plan to create preliminary budgets by the end of this month. They can revise their budgets later if the state’s final budget differs from Murphy’s outline.

At a school board meeting Tuesday before districts received their state-aid estimates, Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory said he had traveled to Trenton in December to tell members of Murphy’s team that the district was “running out of things to do” to close its budget gap. He said the district wasn’t expecting to immediately receive the full $140 million that it’s owed under the state formula. But Murphy’s plan suggested the governor would eventually send Newark the full amount.

“The governor’s address offers a promising sign,” Gregory said.

Civics lesson

With district’s blessing, Newark students join national school walkout against gun violence

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Thousands of Newark students walked out of their schools Wednesday morning in a district-sanctioned protest that was part of a nationwide action calling for an end to gun violence.

At Barringer Academy of the Arts and Humanities in the North Ward, students gathered in the schoolyard alongside Mayor Ras Baraka and interim schools chief Robert Gregory, who offered support to the protesters and even distributed a “student protest week” curriculum to schools.

Just after 10 a.m., hundreds of students watched in silence as a group of their classmates stood in a row and released one orange balloon every minute for 17 minutes — a tribute to the 17 people fatally shot inside a high school in Parkland, Florida last month.

While the Barringer students and faculty mourned those victims they had never met, they also decried gun violence much closer to home: siblings and relatives who had been shot, times they were threatened with guns on the street. Principal Kimberly Honnick asked the crowd to remember Malik Bullock, who was a 16-year-old junior at Barringer when he was shot to death in the South Ward last April.

“Too many lives have been lost way too soon,” she said. “It is time for us to end the violence in our schools.”

School districts across the country have grappled with how to respond to walkouts, which were scheduled to occur at 10 a.m. in hundreds of schools. The student-led action, which was planned in the wake of the Florida mass shooting, is intended to pressure Congress to enact stricter gun laws.

Officials in some districts — including some in New Jersey — reportedly threatened to punish students who joined in the protest. But in Newark, officials embraced the event as a civics lesson for students and a necessary reminder to lawmakers that gun violence is not limited to headline-grabbing tragedies like the one in Parkland — for young people in many cities, it’s a fact of life.

“If there’s any group of people that should be opposed to the amount of guns that reach into our communities, it’s us,” Baraka said, adding that Newark police take over 500 guns off the street each year. “People in cities like Newark, New Jersey — cities that are predominantly filled with black and brown individuals who become victims of gun violence.”

On Friday, Gregory sent families a letter saying that the district was committed to keeping students safe in the wake of the Florida shooting. All school staff will receive training in the coming weeks on topics including “active shooter drills” and evacuation procedures, the letter said.

But the note also said the district wanted to support “students’ right to make their voices heard on this important issue.” Schools were sent a curriculum for this week with suggested lessons on youth activism and the gun-control debate. While students were free to opt out of Wednesday’s protests, high schools were expected to allow students to walk out of their buildings at the designated time while middle schools were encouraged to organize indoor events.

In an interview, Gregory said gun violence in Newark is not confined to mass shootings: At least one student here is killed in a shooting each year, he said — though there have not been any so far this year. Rather than accept such violence as inevitable, Gregory said schools should teach students that they have the power to collectively push for changes — even if that means letting them walk out of class.

“Instead of trying of trying to resist it, we wanted to encourage it,” he said. “That’s what makes America what it is.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Students released one balloon for each of the 17 people killed at a high school in Parkland, Florida last month.

After Barringer’s protest, where people waved signs saying “Love,” “Enough,” and “No to gun violence, several ninth-graders described what it’s like to live in communities where guns are prevalent — despite New Jersey’s tight gun restrictions.

Jason Inoa said he was held up by someone claiming to have a gun as he walked home. Destiny Muñoz said her older brother was shot by a police officer while a cousin was recently gunned down in Florida. The Parkland massacre only compounded her fear that nowhere is safe.

“With school shootings, you feel terrified,” she said. “You feel the same way you do about being outside in the streets.”

Even as the students called for tougher gun laws, they were ambivalent about bringing more police into their schools and neighborhoods. They noted that the Black Lives Matter movement, which they said they recently read about in their freshmen social studies class, called attention to black and Hispanic people who were treated harshly or even killed by police officers.

Ninth-grader Malik Bolding said it’s important to honor the victims of school shootings like the one in Parkland, Florida. But the country should also mourn the people who are killed in everyday gun violence and heed the protesters who are calling for it to end, he added.

“Gun violence is gun violence — it doesn’t matter who got shot,” he said. “Everybody should be heard.”