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Newark Charter students, alumni call for change amid allegations of racism

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Newark Charter

Newark Charter School is pictured in this file photo.

A group of Newark Charter School students and alumni are petitioning the administration for changes, alleging that minority students are subjected to racism that goes unpunished by teachers and administrators.

Approximately 150 students, alumni, parents and community members gathered via Zoom on Sunday night for a virtual town hall meeting to discuss their concerns and their list of requests for the administration.

Many of the students who spoke gave examples of other students using racial slurs, making offensive comments or committing other “microaggressions” that made them feel uncomfortable and unwelcome.

“I feel like I am so alone sometimes,” rising senior Lia Portee said, fighting back tears. “It’s something that we have to work on, and I’m glad we’re having this conversation. It’s very hard to be living in this society and this environment and people not understanding the history or people’s experiences.”

She described one incident during a class in which other students made a game of seeing who could say the N-word the loudest.

“It was really heartbreaking because you would think that people in your class that you’ve known for years and years and years would be more understanding and know the history, but in this school, they really don’t know,” Portee said.

Klonese Williams said she attended Newark Charter for several years before transferring to Padua Academy due to her “terrible experiences” at NCS.

She described an incident in the cafeteria when another student, who was the child of a school administrator, approached and asked for the “N-word pass” – meaning permission from a black person to use the slur. Another time, a student told her she was “the darkest girl I would ever date.”

“That’s when I really realized how people at Newark Charter are very ignorant on racism and some of them even deny that it exists,” Williams said.

Student Nour Tantush said teachers are often unwilling to punish students for their racist comments or actions.

“Because most of our teachers are white, they feel like they don’t have a place to say anything or they feel uncomfortable stepping in and punishing students,” Tantush said. “Even if teachers do recognize it, it doesn’t get punished, and I think that allows students to continue being racist and ignorant towards students that are minorities, that are LGBTQ, and that are people of color.”

Rumi Khan, a 2017 graduate, argued that the way NCS groups students contributes to racism. The school divides students into three “phases” based on academic ability level.

“When you have a high school where students are essentially segregated by their phase over something like eight years long, forming their own personal, isolated pods, if you will, I think it generates a very toxic culture. I think that culture is forced onto the teachers, the parents and administrators, where we don’t really value people by who they are, but by some silly test score they took in the fourth grade,” Khan said. “I think ultimately, the issue of racism is more than just some kids are racist and some teachers are looking the other way. I think it goes down to the very design of the school itself.”

Parent Michelle Brown said her son and daughter often come home with “racial battle fatigue” and noted that the NCS faculty lacks diversity.

“If I ever want my son to have the amazing experience to be taught by an African-American man, to experience the intellectual encouragement and stimulation from someone that looks like him, it wasn’t going to be here,” Brown said.

Parent Tania Emmens said she transferred her son to another school after experiences he had as an elementary student at NCS. In one case, he asked for a black crayon, and another student replied, “You can use your face.” Other times, when the lights were turned out, students would say they couldn’t find her son because of his skin color.

“It literally took his innocence away in fifth grade,” Emmens said, adding that the students were not punished until she complained.

Though most of Sunday’s meeting focused on the experiences of black students, other participants alleged discrimination toward Latinos, Asians, Muslims, LGBTQ students and other underrepresented groups.

“There’s a lot of hatred and just not nice words that are being said at this school, and I think the administration oftentimes does not look or do the right thing,” said Amber Gray, a rising junior who is transgender. “Throughout my entire career in high school, this student has continuously spoken down to me, harassed me, dead-named me and treated me like a person who doesn’t belong. Anytime I contact the administration through email or in person, nothing is really done.”

Student Oriana Carrizales, who is Mexican-American, said she has been told by her classmates to “go back to your country,” but school officials wouldn’t do anything about it.

“It sets an example that you get away with it. It coddles these people and fosters them to grow these prejudices,” Carrizales said. “These people can grow up to be doctors, lawyers and police officers, and they’ll grow with the belief that they can do whatever they want to disenfranchise people and get away with it. The school says that they want to do their best to educate students, so educate them on their ignorance, their racism and their xenophobia. Give consequences where they are due and set a new precedent where no one gets away with it.”

Grace Reckner, a rising sophomore of Japanese descent, said students have told her, “You’re Asian; you’re supposed to be smart.” During discussions of World War II, she was told “You bombed us” and “You deserved Nagasaki.”

Esha Shah, a 2019 graduate, described being teased for bringing Indian food for lunch.

“I always felt very disheartened when kids at lunch would be like, ‘Oh, your food stinks’ or like, ‘That looks weird,’” Shah said. “There would be a lot of comments that just were disheartening and would make me feel like I didn’t want to bring that food to school anymore. I was just disappointed to the point where I was ashamed of the culture I had and who I was.”

Founded in 2001 by a group of parents who wanted a Newark-based alternative to the traditional public school system, Newark Charter has grown significantly over the last two decades. It now serves more than 2,400 students in grades K-12.

Charter schools receive public funding, but have more latitude to make their own decisions than schools in a traditional school district do.

With hundreds of students on the waiting list, NCS is no doubt one of the most popular education options in Newark, and the school regularly scores among the best on state assessments.

However, NCS has frequently drawn criticism for pulling students away from traditional public schools and for what opponents say is a lack of diversity.

The school uses a lottery system for admission, not an admission test, but gives a preference to students who live within a 5-mile radius – which is allowed under state law. Because more people from within the radius apply than the school has room for, other students don’t get a chance to compete for a seat.

According to statistics from the Delaware Department of Education, NCS’s enrollment is 61 percent white, 12 percent black, 6 percent Latino, 15 percent Asian, and 6 percent multi-racial. In comparison, Newark High School, which also draws students from Wilmington and Bear, is 32 percent white, 38 percent black, 22 percent Latino, 4 percent Asian and 3 percent multi-racial.

Now, instead of coming from outside opponents, the criticism of the school is coming from some of its own students and alumni.

The recent controversy surfaced in early June after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked a national dialog on race.

NCS students began circulating social media posts they said showed racist behavior from other students and asked the administration for action. The school posted a statement reading in part, “Newark Charter School is committed to challenging and opposing racism and injustice. We stand in solidarity with our students, families, staff, alumni, community and those disproportionately impacted as we confront racism and seek change.”

The students criticized the statement as too vague and began commenting on the school’s social media posts to share their experiences with racism at NCS. That prompted the school to take down its Facebook and Instagram pages.

The students then created an Instagram account, Black at Newark Charter, where they post anonymous messages alleging racism at the school. Sunday’s town hall meeting was a continuation of that effort.

“It is important that people from all backgrounds feel safe and valued at Newark Charter,” said Keira Morgan, a 2018 graduate who helped organize the campaign. “We want this conversation to be positive, proactive and foster change. We want the next generation of NCS to experience the positives Newark Charter has to offer and a sense of belonging and school pride.”

During Sunday’s meeting, the organizers allotted time for administrators and teachers to speak. However, when they asked if any were willing to do so, they were met with silence.

A few teachers were listening to the discussion, but it did not appear top administrators were tuned into the Zoom meeting.

Later in the meeting, after commenters had criticized school officials for not speaking up, school secretary Kathi Hamelin briefly expressed support for the students.

“I am so proud of all of you for doing this. It is the most incredible thing I’ve been able to participate in,” Hamelin said.

Prior to the meeting, the school released a statement saying it is hiring a new assistant principal who will serve as the school’s “equity lead,” chair a diversity committee and collaborate with administrators and teachers on diversity and inclusion initiatives.

The school also plans to incorporate more diversity into its curriculum and host a series of community conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion.

The students and alumni who organized Sunday’s meeting said that isn’t enough and listed several things they want the administration to do.

They called for an independent board of parents, teachers, students and alumni that would investigate allegations of racism outside of the school’s typical discipline process. The board would decide on “appropriate retribution” for racist acts. They also called for a neutral third party to handle discipline when the incident involves the child of a school employee.

In addition, they called for mandatory “anti-racism” training for students and faculty.

“All students need to be educated about what Black and POC students experience. Terms such as microaggressions, the roots of the N-word, gaslighting, and other terms need to be addressed and discussed. That way, if they are caught doing one of the former or other racist actions, they cannot say that they didn’t know and were uninformed. The assemblies should also be facilitated by a POC (preferably female) instructor to ensure that there are discussions about solutions for Anti-Black behavior at NCS. After these assemblies, students need to complete assignments about what they learned to ensure that they are actually learning what they are being taught,” the group wrote.

Other requests include the creation of a Black Student Union, accommodation of holidays for all religions and cultures, translators for families who don’t speak English, the hiring of more black teachers and an updated curriculum that examines “the legacies of racism, colonialism, slavery, and indigenous genocide on contemporary race, class, and gender-based inequity in the U.S. and beyond.”

Several elected officials and candidates for political office attended Sunday’s meeting, and many spoke in support of the students.

“I am so thankful for the heartfelt, often painful sharing of those experiences,” State Rep. Paul Baumbach said. “We are committed to help make the changes that are needed.”

State Rep. John Kowalko, who has long been a fierce critic of Newark Charter and its admissions policy, vowed to request that the state legislature’s education committee investigate the situation at NCS.

Freeman Williams, president of the Newark NAACP and a former Christina School District superintendent, vowed support as well.

“The Newark NAACP, the state NAACP, and I will make a call to national tomorrow, we will be with you every step of the way,” he said. “Whatever we have to do to help, we’re willing to do.”

James Simmons, chief equity officer for the state of Delaware, noted that NCS is not alone in combatting issues of racism.

“This, ashamedly, is something that’s happening across the state of Delaware and our country,” Simmons said. “This is not isolated in Newark Charter. I think that we need to understand that this is much bigger problem.”

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