How Newark schools helped get out the vote

Employees of the BRICK Education Network encouraged Newark residents to vote on Tuesday. (Courtesy of BRICK Education Network)

Newark schools turned the historic presidential election into a real-life civics lesson.

Teachers taught students about voting rights and staged mock elections. School staffers helped parents and 18-year-olds register to vote and urged them to cast ballots. And employees at one school organization drove through the city Tuesday honking, waving, and encouraging residents to get to the polls.

The efforts were intended partly to increase turnout in an election whose outcome will help determine the amount of funding for schools and relief for families in places like Newark, which has been ravaged by the COVD-19  pandemic. But the voting push was also meant to send a message to students that American democracy only works when informed citizens take part in elections. 

“It’s a way of showing that your voice is important,” said Tish Johnson, director of external relations for the BRICK Education Network, which oversees several Newark charter schools and organized Tuesday’s car caravan. “If you want to see a change, voting is a way to do that.”

Teachers faced a tough task explaining this year’s extraordinary election to students. The presidential race, which pitted President Donald Trump against former Vice President Joe Biden, came amid a pandemic that forced millions of Americans to vote by mail, followed massive protests this summer over racial injustice, and featured divisive rhetoric and disinformation.

Heike Domine tackled that challenge by rooting her classroom conversations in facts. A sixth-grade social studies teacher at a Newark charter school, she had her students research each candidate’s views on pressing issues, including the pandemic, health care, and immigration. She also taught them about the long struggle over voting rights in the U.S., from past efforts to block Black Americans from the polls to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to present-day attempts to suppress voter turnout. 

Domine also held a mock election, in which 87% of her students voted for Biden and most of the others opted for third-party candidates. The history lessons and voting exercise drove home the point that suffrage is only valuable when it’s put to use.

“While voting is a right, it’s also a responsibility and a civic duty,” said Domine, who teaches at TEAM Academy, part of KIPP New Jersey network. 

Newark schools didn’t just teach about the election — they also helped residents participate in it. 

BRICK employees called about 1,000 voters ahead of the election reminding them to cast ballots and offered free rides to the polls. On Tuesday, the organization partnered with the South Ward Democratic Committee to pay for a van outfitted with video screens saying “Vote Now!” to cruise through the southern section of Newark. And schools managed by BRICK, along with KIPP schools, did not hold classes Tuesday so that employees and parents could take part in the election.

Other Newark schools also made a push to register parents to vote. Several were assisted by Project Ready, a Newark-based nonprofit that works to increase civic engagement. The group trained charter school employees on voter registration and the mail-in voting process and held registration events at several district schools. 

The group also enlisted high school students in neighboring East Orange to call young voters. About a third of Newark’s unregistered voters are between 18 and 25 years old, said Project Ready CEO Shennell McCloud. She hopes to convince Newark families and young people who participated in the presidential election to also vote in Newark’s school board election in April.

“We’re at a unique moment where we can actually reimagine what education should be looking like,” McCloud said.

Joshua Speight, a senior at East Side High School, voted for the first time this week. (Courtesy of Shanique Speight)

The Newark school district also made a push to get voting-age students to exercise their right. The district helped register some of the roughly 675 students who were eligible to vote in Tuesday’s election, said Superintendent Roger León. Since 2018, the district has helped about 2,000 students register to vote, he said.

East Side High School went a step further, creating a homemade public service announcement urging students to cast ballots. In the video, staff members do “cool” things like wear sunglasses, play guitar, and watch Netflix. Then a teacher says: “Do you know what else is cool? Voting is cool.”

Joshua Speight, a senior at East Side, took that message to heart. On Monday, he voted for the first time.

He dropped off his completed ballot with his mother, Shanique Speight, who is a Democratic state assemblywoman. He was amazed to see so many other people also hand delivering their ballots during the pandemic. 

“I was like, ‘This voting stuff really matters — especially in 2020, with everything going on right now,’” he said. “Every vote really does matter.”

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