As schools open with changes this week, Newark students react to new teachers, principals, and school policies

Two rows of cars lined the front entrance of Science Park High School at 2:40 p.m. on Tuesday as parents waited to pick up their children after the first day of school.

“I’m waiting to hear how her day went,” Adrianna Carvalho said, as she sat in her air-conditioned car. “I’ve been happy with her experience so far. As long as she’s happy, I’m happy.”

A few minutes later, Carvalho’s daughter Nathalia Peregrino exited the school with a smile on her face after her first day as a sophomore.

Science Park is one of 66 Newark schools that opened this week after undergoing substantial changes over the summer. After a tumultuous year, it got a new principal, as did almost a quarter of Newark schools. Other schools opened in new spaces — sometimes unexpectedly. Others have changed policies to align with Superintendent Roger León vision for how to improve the struggling school district. 

That vision includes changing the leadership at several schools, using authority that the city school board gave him this summer to make personnel changes unilaterally. It also includes holding school leaders accountable for making improvements. 

“Principals need to be on top of it,” León said at the first board meeting of the school year. “I know how to remove principals who can’t get it done.”

Though Peregrino said she was a little shocked at all of the staff changes that took place over the summer, she hopes that the new administration will revamp the school culture. 

At a school board meeting in March, some Science Park students named culturally insensitive incidents — including a white physical education teacher who wore a Barack Obama mask and “Make America Great Again” hat on Halloween, and a vice principal who ordered black students to remove their head scarves. León said then that things were being done to address the students’ concerns.

“I hope people are more cautious about what they say and do this year,” Peregrino said. “It was kind of negative in the hallways after that incident.”

Another Science Park parent, Sheril Henderson, brought up the same concerns. 

“I hope that’s being taken care of. We don’t need that here,” she said. “This is for everyone, and kids should be come to come here to learn.”

Students at Arts High School said their main adjustment on the first day was to a new schedule that compresses time between classes to just two minutes. Plus, if students aren’t in their homeroom class in the morning, their parents will get an immediate phone call, according to senior class president David Daughety, who said the policies were explained through a meeting between school administration and the student body during orientation the last week of August. 

“I believe it will push to get people to school on time,” Daughety said. “But what about people who are late due to circumstances out of their control but still make it to school and put in effort and produce good work?”

Carl McDonald has been sending his daughter, Brianna Lugo, to Marion P. Thomas Charter School for the past four years. (Devna Bose/Chalkbeat)

Right down the street from Arts High, students at Marion P. Thomas Charter School — part of a network that is undergoing major changes of its own — had their day of school in a new building, and fourth-grader Brianna Lugo was a fan.

“I like this one more,” she said. “It has smaller spaces, for kids to play in and not get hurt.”

Parents also filtered in and out of schools all day, completing last-minute school registration. The district’s online enrollment system, Newark Enrolls, has been down for two months — taking the process offline, forcing families to go to the district’s downtown “Family Support Center,” and putting a strain on parents and schools. The district announced two weeks ago, in an effort to make the process easier, that parents could enroll their children at their closest schools instead.

In the East Ward, Jon Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union, said Hawkins Street School was packed on Tuesday with parents coming to register their children in school, with bilingual faculty working to help Spanish-speaking families. 

“Because of the school’s location in the Ironbound, there are a lot of cultures here,” he said.

As students spent their first morning back in school with new teachers in new buildings, parent activists held a rally outside the district’s Broad Street headquarters. Local activist and former Newark Board of Education candidate Johnnie Lattner announced the event to protest the school board’s recent threat to ban disorderly parents from meetings and demand answers about water filters in schools in the wake of Newark’s lead crisis.

“There is an attack on the parents, students, teachers, and community in Newark and [it’s] time to fight back and make everyone aware of the disrespect, dishonesty, and conditions that are currently happening in Newark,” he said in a press release.

At the last board meeting, León assured the audience that water is safe to drink at Newark schools. In response to an examination of lead contamination in 2016, the district installed water filters turn off the water supply when the filters stop working, according to León.

“Parents should feel very confident, as it relates to drinking water at our schools,” he said.

León spent the day visiting schools around Newark, as shown on the district’s website. But unlike in the past, the district did not invite reporters to join the superintendent, and he gave no public remarks.