Newark schools chief retracts promise to give teachers two days off, says learning loss too great

Newark schools Superintendent Roger León sits beside Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon at a table covered in a blue cloth. Both men are clapping and wearing masks.
Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon pressed Superintendent Roger León at a board meeting to keep his promise to give teachers an extra two days off. (Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat)

Newark Superintendent Roger León backpedaled on a promise and rejected the teachers union request to extend the upcoming Memorial Day break by using two extra in-session days that were built into the 2022-23 academic calendar.

School board members, a community member, and Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon pressed the chief of schools at a board meeting Thursday to follow through on his promise to end the year early if no days are used for emergency closings due to inclement weather.

Abeigon and the others suggested an extended break before or after Memorial Day would suffice if it’s too late in the year to move up the last day of school by two days.

But León didn’t budge.

“The answer to extending it would be no,” he said, pointing to concerns about students’ low performance in reading and math standardized tests and a rise in chronic absenteeism.

He also said that state standardized testing will be ongoing through the end of the month, which would make it “humanly not possible at this time” to take days off before or after Memorial Day on May 29.

The math, reading, and science standardized tests are scheduled for May 1 through May 26, the Friday before Memorial Day, according to the state testing schedule. Makeup dates are scheduled for May 30 to June 2.

Even so, numerous school districts statewide have opted to extend the holiday weekend with unused snow days, including West Orange, Bloomfield, and others in Essex County.

Though New Jersey schools are required to be in session for 180 days to receive state aid, many districts tack on additional days in the annual academic calendar to allow for sudden closures due to inclement weather or other emergencies.

When the additional days aren’t used, many districts will extend holiday weekends, spring breaks, or allow for an early end to the school year.

The Newark Public Schools 2022-23 school calendar has 182 days, two days more than the minimum 180 requirement. The Newark Teachers Union contract also stipulates a maximum of 182 instructional days, though there can be less than that total. With very light snow this past winter — the state saw record-low snow totals — the district didn’t use the extra two days for emergency closures.

‘Accountability is important’

State code permits school boards to determine the dates schools are open in their districts.

Abeigon asked the school board members at the meeting to make a motion to amend the current school calendar to include two extra days off.

No board members took him up on his suggestion, but two pressured León to explain why he backtracked on his word.

At Newark’s annual convocation on Aug. 30, just before the start of the school year, León told district employees that as a show of appreciation for their work, he would end the school year on June 21 instead of June 23 if the extra two days are not used.

“You know how I said you were valued. You saw how I said we were appreciating you. And you saw that we’re doing it not only with our word but through actions, right?” León said at the convocation, according to a video recording that the union posted on its YouTube channel. “If in fact we do not have any weather inclement reasons to close schools, we will actually close school at the 180th day — June 21.”

But as the school year went on, grim test results showed students struggling in math and reading and the chronic absenteeism rate going up.

“If, in fact, the realities today were any different, we would be making obviously different recommendations,” León said on Thursday. “That is not the recommendation that we are moving forward right now.”

In an email to union members on Tuesday, León also said that “maximizing instructional time for all of our students must be our highest priority” and that deducting two days from the academic calendar would “detract” from that priority.

Though learning loss is evident, it’s hard to see how it would be exacerbated by an additional two days off, said Allison James-Frison, the newly elected board member who was sworn in at the board meeting Thursday.

“And accountability is important,” James-Frison said. “The superintendent stated that he would do it and I think he should be held accountable to what he stated months ago.”

Board member Crystal Williams said she agreed with James-Frison and suggested giving staff and students half days if two full days off is not feasible.

“You can’t tell someone you’re going to do something for them and then don’t follow through,” said Denise Cole, a longtime resident and education advocate, during the public comment portion of the meeting. “That’s not leadership.”

Abeigon said the district’s decision to not go through with the extra two days off could have other ramifications.

“This doesn’t help the teacher retention problem one bit because it will discourage teachers from coming to the district and, in some cases, it will be the last straw for some of our teachers who feel they can’t work in a district where they can’t trust the superintendent,” Abeigon said.

Union leaders raised the issue with district officials at three separate meetings since March, said Michael Maillaro, the union’s spokesman.

The Newark Teachers Union also has support from the state chapter of its union to push for the two days off.

“As a way to show appreciation for the jobs they did all year, it would certainly mean a lot to them if the district recognized their efforts by keeping their promise and not have them go to school for the two snow days they didn’t use,” said Donna M. Chiera, the president of AFT-NJ, in an email. “Those two days at the end of June will not have a significant or any impact on student achievement.”

Catherine Carrera is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Newark, covering the city’s K-12 schools with a focus on English language learners. Contact Catherine at ccarrera@chalkbeat.org.

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