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‘A blessing in disguise,’ as two schools forge unlikely friendship

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NEWARK, N.J. — Two miles separating two schools were far enough that students and parents had never met, yet close enough that they had made up their minds about one another.

To the west of the railroad tracks and McCarter Highway sat Quitman Street Community School: low test scores, predominantly African-American, a crime-ridden neighborhood. To the east was Wilson Avenue School: high performing, mostly Portuguese and Brazilian, still working class but in a bustling commercial district.

The Ironbound neighborhood where Wilson is located could hardly be considered affluent by suburban standards, but that was the perception among students at Quitman. And while Quitman is a safe place despite its community’s challenges, Wilson families thought the school and its occupants dangerous.

Wilson eighth-graders Sarah Freitas (right) and Laura Ferreira are grateful for the new friends they made at Quitman. (Photo by Amanda Murphy)

In September 2011, those assumptions were put to the test when Wilson’s 130-year-old building was deemed uninhabitable in the wake of Hurricane Irene. Newark district officials had only a few days before the start of the school year to place more than 800 students, and Quitman could fit 450 of them.

Wilson’s fourth- through eighth-graders would have to cross the tracks.

Their parents erupted in fury, staging protests and packing community meeting. The students were frightened and upset.

“I heard that they would do scary things,” said Sarah Freitas, 13, who was a seventh-grader at Wilson at the time.

“I thought our grades were going to drop, and the kids weren’t going to be friendly,” added her classmate Laura Ferreira.

Amiatta Amara, then in seventh grade at Quitman, wasn’t thrilled by the news, either. “I felt intimidated that they were going to take over and Quitman was going to sink to the bottom,” she said. After all, a gulf upward of 50 percentage points separates the schools’ test scores in some areas, a fact about which the thoughtful girl is painfully aware.

“When you heard of Wilson Avenue School, you heard about how they’re all academically talented,” the 14-year-old said. “When you compare Wilson Avenue to Quitman, it’s like, the scores are not even. So they’ll actually come to Quitman?”

They actually did.

The four months that followed were a learning experience only Mother Nature could have orchestrated. Two communities that otherwise never would have had reason to interact bonded in a way no one expected. Stereotypes that form while living in isolation from other racial and ethnic groups were shattered, expanding students’ perspective.

On the first morning buses pulled up, about 100 Quitman parents and staff members stood on the sidewalk waving and cheering. “Welcome!” they said, clapping as the students walked into the vestibule. “Welcome to your new home.”

Isolation in Newark Schools

A Hechinger Report analysis of 2011 demographic information for Newark’s 48 elementary schools* shows the following:

  • Thirteen had zero white students.
  • White students represented less than 5 percent of the enrollment at 41 of the 48 schools.
  • Wilson had the highest population of students classified as white, 56 percent, followed by Ann Street School with 52 percent and Oliver Street School with 35 percent.
  • Black students represented more than 90 percent of the enrollment at 13 schools.
  • George Washington Carver and Harriet Tubman schools had the highest proportion of black students, 98 percent, followed by Lincoln at 97 percent.
  • Six schools were more than 80 percent Hispanic, and 17 schools were majority Hispanic.
  • All schools had a high percentage of students living in poverty. All but three had more than 80 percent of students on free and reduced-price lunch. All had more than 70 percent. With 86 percent of students on free and reduced-price lunch, Wilson had one of the lowest poverty rates in the city.

Source: New Jersey Department of Education
*Charter schools not included.

The two separate schools operated in the same hallways — a Quitman class in one room, a Wilson class in the next — and took turns in the cafeteria.

Students soon took the PSAT together, did a class project together and performed a holiday concert together. A few middle school crushes ensued. As Amiatta put it, “we all sort of, like, rose above.”

When January came and Wilson students returned to their own school building, many people — children and adults from both schools — were sorry to see them to go. Some of the girls even cried.

“For a blink of an eye,” Quitman Principal Erskine Glover said, “we were the most diverse, the most integrated school in the city.”

Today, a year later, the two schools are back to their separate routines. Some kids still keep in touch on Facebook. Some wish they could visit, and some wish they’d gotten to know one another better while they had a chance.

Glover reminds his students of the academic excellence they saw from their Wilson classmates, challenging them to meet the same bar. In the spring, as guest speaker at Wilson’s honor society induction, he thanked the students for inspiring Quitman and challenged them “to continue to have an open mind and think globally.”

“The world expands greatly,” he said, “when you walk outside your own doors.”

A segregated system

This year, with Quitman the target of a district turnaround effort, Glover has control over certain things that he didn’t before. He selected most of his own staff, resulting in more than half of the teachers turning over, and has more discretion over the budget.

One of the things he can’t control is Quitman’s racial and economic isolation, a circumstance that is the norm in Newark. Of the school’s 550 students, about 90 percent are black and 10 percent are Hispanic; less than 1 percent is white. An analysis of state data by The Hechinger Report shows that 41 of Newark’s 48 elementary schools last year had a white population less than 5 percent.

Quitman fifth-grader Emiliana Murphy enjoyed performing in a concert with students from Wilson, but she wishes she’d gotten to know them better.(Photo by Amanda Murphy)

Studies have repeatedly shown the benefits of integration for poor and minority children, but the nation’s appetite for busing waned years ago, and in Newark, it was never there to begin with. While other Northeastern cities battled over forced busing policies, Newark in the early 1960s was quietly allowing white students into schools outside their neighborhoods so they would not have to attend majority-black schools, according to longtime civic leader Robert Curvin. New Jersey’s desegregation lawsuits in the decades that followed morphed into a suit over equitable school funding.

Schools end up segregated where housing patterns are segregated, which they are in many places and to an extreme in Newark. New Deal-era federal housing policy made it irresistible for whites to move to the suburbs while blacks could not get a mortgage. Housing projects constructed with good intentions, to shelter the poor in central cities, exacerbated the problem.

In the 1950s, three major towers — Curvin calls them “vertical ghettoes” — went up in Newark’s Central Ward, where Quitman opened in 1963. After Newark’s 1967 riots tore through the area, its already struggling schools slumped even further.

Before the Great Depression, the Central Ward was a primarily Jewish enclave, poor but vivacious with shops and small entrepreneurial businesses. Clement Price, a widely respected Rutgers history professor, said the neighborhood resembled today’s Ironbound.

Also known as Little Portugal, the Ironbound is filled with modest yet vibrant shops selling flowers, jewelry, cold cuts and imported cigars. In the midst of the commercial hub sits Wilson Avenue School.

About 85 percent of Wilson students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, giving the school one of the lowest poverty rates in Newark.

Among Newark elementary schools, Wilson also had the highest proportion of white students last year: 56 percent. Students of Portuguese and Spanish descent are designated white, while the remainder hailing from South America are considered Hispanic.

In 2011, 85 percent of Wilson eighth-graders passed the state standardized test in math. At Quitman the number was just 29 percent.

What Quitman does have is a building that, at nearly 50 years old, is considered new by Newark public school standards. Wilson’s building has been in operation since 1881, when it opened as the Hamburg Platt Public School to serve what was then a largely German population.

In April 2010, Wilson closed after floodwater in the gym was found to contain the toxic chemical benzene. Students spent the spring at a temporarily vacant private school building nearby.

Wilson was back in operation for the 2010-2011 school year. Then Hurricane Irene struck the last weekend of August 2011. On Sept. 2, Principal Margarita Hernandez learned that unsafe mold levels had been discovered in the building. Mushrooms were growing in the gym. The students, returning from summer vacation four days later, would have to go elsewhere again.

‘We want to stay here!’

No matter where the Wilson students went, their parents were going to be furious. They had been waiting for years for the state to renovate their dilapidating building, and they were tired of seeing schools with poorer academic performance get all the resources while their kids lost precious instructional time being shuttled around the city.

Quitman eighth-grader Amiatta Amara was initially intimidated by students coming from Wilson but said everyone “rose above.” (Photo by Amanda Murphy)

“This time we had had enough,” said Luis Correia, an Ironbound community activist with four godchildren at Wilson. “It’s shameful that two times in less than 18 months, the same school was closed for environmental issues.”

Before television cameras outside the building, parents and students shouted, “We want to stay here!”

But no viable option existed. Kindergartners stayed in an annex in the Wilson parking lot. First- through third-graders went to St. Anthony’s School in Belleville.

The older children went to Quitman. Tents were hoisted outside Wilson to shield students from rain and cold as they waited for buses each morning.

Quitman had been considered for closure that year, yet it had a facility far superior to Wilson, a sore spot for many Wilson parents. Why didn’t they have a beautiful new playground like the one being built there? “We pay the most taxes in the city, and we have two basketball hoops that together probably cost 40 bucks,” Correia said.

Add to that the typical anxieties parents face when sending their children to a new place. What if a child got sick, parents were working and a grandmother had to navigate the city’s public buses? “It was like a strange land for them,” said Hernandez, the Wilson principal. “They didn’t even know how to get there.”

So parents had many reasons for their frustration that had nothing to do with the people at Quitman, but that’s where some of it got directed. “There were some pretty harsh things said about our students and this community,” said CaMisha Hill, Quitman’s social worker, who attended a raucous school meeting in the Ironbound where Wilson parents hammered into public officials about their children’s placement at Quitman.

Carol Tagoe, the mother of two Quitman students who was at the time coordinating community engagement in the neighborhood, sought out conversations with English-speaking Wilson parents. “People had this perception that down here in the Central Ward, there’s crack, drugs, shootings and what not,” she said. She told them she doesn’t believe in putting her children in the line of fire, and if the school is good enough for her children, it’s good enough for theirs.

“We reassured them that your kids become our kids, and we’re not the belly of the beast,” she said.

What happened next reminded Tagoe of Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. “You know Reagan saying, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down those walls?’” she said. “That’s what it was…. The Berlin Wall was torn down by the kids crossing the tracks.”

Welcomed with open arms

Consider another historical image: the nine black children facing a violent white mob to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in September 1957.  Take that scene and reverse it — white and Hispanic children approaching a majority-black school, to cheers and claps rather than fury — and that was the scene outside Quitman on Sept. 6, 2011. A few dozen Quitman parents continued a welcome brigade each morning throughout the co-location.

“I was really shocked to see that they were there welcoming us with open arms,” said Laura Ferreira, who is now 14. “I don’t even have words for it. I felt really happy and really shocked that they were O.K. with us and they were happy that we were there.”

Sarah Freitas recalls being approached by a girl from Quitman on the first day. “She said, ‘I hope you feel comfortable here in your new home,’” Sarah recalled. “I was like, ‘Oh my God. That’s so awesome.’”

Not all the students were open to the warm reception. “They didn’t know us at first, so they were all scared,” said Quitman student Genesis Canela, 13. “They wouldn’t even talk to us. Every time we’d try to get close to them, they would all try to get away.”

Quickly, though, word spread that the Quitman kids weren’t so bad. “They found out that we’re actually really nice students and that even though some of us are challenged on an academic level, there are actually some bright future scholars in Quitman,” Amiatta said.

Some of the younger children were confused about what was going on. “I was actually surprised that somebody from a different school would be coming to our school,” said Emiliana Murphy, 11, who was in fourth grade at Quitman at the time. “If anything, I would think we’d be going to their school… We usually take trips to other people’s schools and museums and stuff.” She was referring to college visits that older students at Quitman take.

Opportunities for student interaction were limited. The first priority had to be on running both schools smoothly, which required massive amounts of logistical collaboration by the two staffs. They had to figure out bus times, meal times and room assignments, to coordinate Wilson’s district cafeteria workers with Quitman’s outside food contractor, to synch different rules and norms like whether breakfast was allowed in the classrooms.

It helped that Wilson’s vice principal assigned to the site, Angela Piombo, had worked with several Quitman staff members previously as a district instructional coach.

With Wilson students arriving after Quitman students had started classes and leaving immediately at the end of the day for after-school activities in the Ironbound, hallway pass time became the most fertile ground for conversation. Salvatore Chiaravalloti, who was Wilson’s seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher, recalled that “at one point, the biggest problem became that students wanted to go into the hallway when students from Quitman were changing classes so they could talk to their friends.”

The two fifth-grade classes did a joint project where pairs of students — one Quitman, one Wilson — made lists of their shared likes and dislikes and turned them into a bulletin board. In liking pizza and disliking the music of Justin Bieber, they discovered common ground.

A new Wilson student who spoke only Arabic was tutored by Quitman’s Arabic-speaking pre-kindergarten teacher. A handful of Spanish-speaking Quitman students who needed more intensive bilingual instruction joined in Wilson’s bilingual classes.

Glover frequently entertained calls and visits from Wilson parents, putting them at ease, and he made daily visits to all classrooms in the building. He was impressed by the Wilson teachers’ bulletin boards and began taking his staff to study them during grade-level meetings. Then Quitman teachers started having their students look at the Wilson students’ work. Piombo said the Wilson staff took note of some excellent Quitman displays, too.

“It made me want to push myself farther and sort of, like, be up on their level, challenge myself,” Amiatta said.

“We actually do thank them because they inspired some of our own students to do better,” Genesis added.

Quitman students sat in when Wilson students made their speeches for student council elections and put greater attention on the process themselves this year, when Genesis was elected president. She has her hopes set on being Quitman’s eighth-grade valedictorian this spring, after hearing the emphasis that Wilson put on who would have the honor.

One morning, qualifying seventh- and eighth-graders from the two schools sat together to take the PSAT. “There were like 50 of them and only 10 of us,” Genesis said. The Quitman students were nervous, but it turned out that testing anxiety was universal.

Bruno Fernandes, 14, who was Wilson’s 2012 valedictorian and is now a freshman at Seton Hall Prep in West Orange, was upset by the disparity in the numbers. “I was appalled when I saw the number of Quitman students compared with the number of Wilson students,” he said. “There was a major gap, I guess.”

No one knew when the Wilson building would be ready to reopen, so some joint projects that started never saw completion. Students were planning a dance, while administrators and teachers applied for a grant to do staff professional development and student field trips together. The point was to continue collaboration after Wilson’s return to its own building, but the foundation considering the application denied it because the schools would no longer be on the same campus.

Going separate ways

Before the end of the co-location last December, the two schools came together for two holiday concerts. One is a Wilson tradition where teachers perform holiday songs in English, Spanish and Portuguese for their students. They held the event at Quitman so its students could join in the fun.

Wilson and Quitman students also did a concert performing together. The Wilson students were impressed by the Quitman performers’ singing abilities. But dozens of Wilson students were trained to play musical instruments versus only a few at Quitman. That inspired Glover to boost Quitman’s band program this year.

Emiliana enjoyed her role as the mother in a musical skit acting out the lyrics to “I’m Getting’ Nuttin’ For Christmas.” (I’m gettin’ nuttin’ For Christmas/ Mommy and Daddy are mad/ I’m getting’ nuttin’ for Christmas/ Cause I ain’t been nuttin’ but bad.) Anytime the Wilson student in the lead role did something bad (putting a tack on a teacher’s chair or tying a knot in Suzie’s hair, for instance), Emiliana would shake her finger and say, “You’re getting nothing for Christmas!”

Still, Emiliana was sorry she never asked the Wilson students the questions she had about them. “I would like to know their name, their hobbies, and if they have brothers and sisters like I do,” said the current fifth-grader, who has one brother and one sister and wants to be a singer, dancer, actress and chef when she grows up.

Glover, too, was sorry the Wilson students couldn’t stay longer at the school, which is now called Quitman Street Renew School. “It meant a lot to the city to see two distinct communities actually warming up harmoniously,” he said. “It changed the lens of how we communicate.”

At the same time, he said: “Listen, I’m not a fool, either. I don’t think we’re all going to have these Kumbaya moments and change our homes just to change the demographics of the community.”

Given the demographics, Glover knows he must broaden his students’ limited lens on reality for them to imagine possibilities beyond the Central Ward. Both he and the Wilson administration say they would like to continue getting their students together, but so far the demands of daily life have gotten in the way and they have not applied for any other grants. Glover is proposing a joint student council activity.

“It’s funny,” he said. “Schools are supposed to be the places where we encourage children to make unique connections and operate in spaces outside of their norms, but how do we facilitate that outside of competitive events?”

When Glover returned to Wilson as the honor society speaker, the students gave the black, dreadlocked principal a reception that he said made him feel like “president of the United States.”

“We all got up and applauded for him,” Laura said. “He did in some way change our life, accepting us into that school. He along with the school changed our life because if it weren’t for them, I’d have still been scared to go to another school and make new friends.

“It was a blessing in disguise because if it weren’t for the fact that we went through something bad, which was our school being evacuated, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet them.”

This story also appeared in the NJ Spotlight on December 19, 2012.

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