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The Life and Death of Newark's Eighteenth Avenue School

Crumbling building, failing test scores, shrinking enrollment doom a neighborhood school

Friday, September 07, 2012

NJ Spotlight
After more than 130 years in Newark’s Central Ward, the Eighteenth Avenue School didn't open its doors to new and returning students this year. (Amanda Murphy for NJSpotlight/NJPR)

After more than 130 years in Newark’s Central Ward, the Eighteenth Avenue School didn't open its doors to new and returning students on Thursday.

The demise of the once-stately brick building is indicative of what's happening in cities across the country: enrollment down to 250, walls and infrastructure well past their years, student test scores on the low end in  a city where the norm is nothing to cheer about.

In sum, the school built in 1876 in this hardscrabble neighborhood was an easy target for Superintendent Cami Anderson in 2012, as she seeks to raise expectations in a district suddenly in the national spotlight.

As part of her plan, Anderson started new and “renewal” schools elsewhere in the city, each with her pledge of improvement. One of them is a half-mile away, the Quitman Street Renew School, which is the subject of this series by NJ Spotlight, the Hechinger Report, and NJ Public Radio. At least 75 former Eighteenth Avenue students started their year there yesterday.

But the now-empty building at the corner Eighteenth Avenue and Livingston Street -- slated perhaps to house a charter school but with only a custodian in attendance yesterday -- presents a telling and complicated lesson about school reform.

It’s a lesson that started with a reporter’s visit almost a decade ago.

First Visit to Eighteenth Avenue

I first walked through the red front door of the Eighteenth Avenue School in the spring of 2004, when I was an education reporter at the Newark Star-Ledger. The newspaper wanted to do a yearlong project about a struggling inner-city school, and Eighteenth Avenue certainly fit the bill.

The school was already familiar with state mandates to improve or face the consequences. After five years of test scores at the back end of the curve, it had been targeted by the federal No Child Left Behind Act

A decade ago, just half of Elizabeth Avenue fourth graders were proficient in language arts, a quarter proficient in math. The numbers inched above 60 percent by 2004, but it still earned the label of a “school in need of improvement.”

It wasn't just test scores. The neighborhood was as beaten down as any in Newark, the school just around the corner from the police precinct house where the 1967 riots unofficially began. Instead of new retail development and housing scattered elsewhere in the Central Ward, it was home to public housing and empty lots.

Across the street stood the new steel and glass Central High School, which made the contrast even sharper with Eighteenth Avenue. The school was built in the aftermath of the Civil War and last expanded in 1920s. Now, it was surviving on stopgaps and scaffolding, with some charm in its tin ceilings, but what it delivered was far from a contemporary educational experience.

(Photo: the facade of the Eighteenth Avenue School. Amanda Murphy for NJSpotlight/NJPR)

Going to the Principal's Office

The principal at Eighteenth Avenue back then and up until last June, was Barbara Ervin, a soft-spoken but stern educator. She was wary, to say the least, about having a reporter and photographer in her building for the next 10 months. But she acquiesced, saying the public needed to hear and see more than just the popular assumptions about poor schools in poor neighborhoods, especially those that are mostly black or Hispanic students like this one.

She was anything but starry-eyed. The school was in one of the toughest sections of Newark, the poverty and crime of the nearby Felix Fuld housing project a very real part of daily life. (I witnessed this firsthand when a lunchtime trip was interrupted by gunfire between two cars at the nearby intersection of Quitman Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard.)

“When somebody is just looking at the figures and hasn’t been here and seen what we do and the time we put in, the labels can be disheartening,” said special education teacher Dorothy Zignauskus at the time. 

“But you dust yourself off and get back to it,” she said.

There was no shortage of dusting off that year. Two teachers were gone by winter and replaced by substitutes for the rest of the year. The state’s intervention team never showed after all. The new crisis counselor -- who addressed the toughest student challenges -- was transferred midyear and never replaced. The additional   federal resources amounted to all of $11,000.

Boxes of new books were delivered, but half of the new computers were never wired for the Internet, at a time when one teacher pointed out that other schools in the state were going wireless.

“That’s the story of urban schools: by the time we catch up, everyone else has moved on,” said teacher Greg Robinson.

And when the last standardized test was scored that spring, the results were inconclusive: some subjects were up, others down. Eighteenth Avenue would remain on NCLB’s watch list for another year.

But even in a school fighting against the odds, there was rarely a sense of surrender, and the school year was marked by triumphs that didn’t show up on the state’s report cards.

The kindergarten’s class trip to an apple orchard in Freehold was the first journey outside the city for some kids. There was a growing special education population, as well as a fledgling special education class for preschoolers.

In a new third grade class for students with emotional disorders, one particularly challenging boy attained some peace and structure. Under NCLB, families in these low-performing schools had the option to transfer to a better school, but barely any of them did.

On a graduation day in June, 2005, a grandmother gave Ervin a long hug for the years the school gave to her family.

“I want to see Marquis move on, but I hate to see him leave Eighteenth Avenue,” said Willa Griffith of her grandson. “They turned him around, they turned him around for the best.”

The Vanishing Children

Jump to 2012 . . .

Another reform push came four years ago in a partnership with New York University and the Harlem Children’s Zone, bringing a few more resources and training for the school’s staff.

But one challenge proved too tough to overcome: the children simply went away. As populations dropped in cities like Detroit and Chicago, so did public school enrollments. It was a combination of factors, from the recession’s body-blow to inner cities, to the growth of charter schools in places like Newark.

Just five years ago, there were more than 40,000 students in Newark's district schools. Now it's down to 37,000 and falling. At Eighteenth Avenue, the vacant and ghostly Felix Fuld housing project down the block was shuttered in 2008, its windows now boarded up.

The closing of "Little Bricks" -- the neighborhood name for the housing project -- was meant to help disperse some of the acute poverty that can strangle neighborhoods, as well as their schools. Little Bricks’ impact on Eighteenth Avenue was no exception, but the housing project also provided many of the school's students and families.

A new park was built next door to the school, across from Central, but that didn’t bring the children back.

“We were going to continue to be on the list unless they were going to put a housing unit over here to add to the population,” Ervin said this summer. “There is no place to just grow kids without housing.”

“It was the closing of Little Bricks more than anything else,” she said. “Not that our scores were the highest, but they weren't the lowest either. There were others larger than us that had worse records than us, but they had larger populations and closing them would overcrowd other places.”

In the meantime, the school did make some small gains in achievement. This year it did well enough to fall out of the NCLB’s “in need of improvement” category, the principal said.

But that doesn’t count for much as each grade went down to a single classroom.

“One teacher at each grade level does not allow teachers to grow,” Ervin said. “All the research will tell you that the best way to improve teacher quality is to have teachers meet, work together, observe each other, and give each other feedback.” 

(Photo: The gymnasium at the Eighteen Avenue School. Amanda Murphy for NJSpotlight/NJPR)

The Bad News

The news of the closing was hardly much of a surprise, not after it had been a candidate for closing the previous year as well, and the one before that.

In her second year in the district, Anderson this summer explained there was too much working against the school to wait any longer.

Anderson was handpicked by Gov. Chris Christie to shake up this state-run district, and she had said that as many as 20 schools were possible candidates for closure -- ones with sagging enrollment, poor building conditions, and low achievement levels.

“We need to do something significant, bold and dramatically different,” she said. “There is a human element that every child needs to be on a path to progress, and we believe that parents will travel anywhere to put them on that path.”

Closing underperforming schools is a popular strategy in urban districts. The thinking goes something like this: close the school to save the education. It presents a no-holds-barred consequence to the improve-or-else approach, and is being taken up in other urban districts, including Paterson and Camden.

But it’s a contentious topic. The Christie administration under state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf doesn’t shy from it, listing it as a possible option in turnaround efforts now underway at more than 70 schools statewide. Cerf stresses that closure doesn’t necessarily mean that a school stays closed; it has the option to reopen with a new leader, new teachers, and new students.

“It really means a restart,” he said recently. “It’s a school that has not delivered for the kids, where the culture is not conducive for change. I am very much persuaded that you can take a building not working, and essentially reopen it as a new school.”

Still, the research is limited as to how effective closing schools is, and it has become a sore spot in the battles over school reform nationwide.

One recent report from the Pew Charitable Trusts assessed closures in six cities, including Chicago, Detroit and Kansas City. It concluded that financial savings were relatively small and achievement gains hard to measure beyond the anecdotal.

It was clear about one of the consequences of closure: “The political fallout often is significant. In Washington, public discontent over the process contributed to the ouster of a mayor and a schools chancellor. In Chicago, it led to the enactment of a state law governing all future closings in the city.”

Cerf often cites what he says is the jump in achievement that has come with school closures in New York City, where he was deputy chancellor before coming to New Jersey. He said graduation rates shot up from 30 percent to 70 percent.

A Destabilizing Influence?

But for all the gains, there are questions about what closure does to the stability of a neighborhood that is often in need of sure footing. In Newark, the closings have been at the center of the very public outcry that has greeted Anderson at each step.

Ervin has been at some of those community meetings, looking out for her old school as it moved further down the plank. She is slated to be part of Anderson’s plans, chosen to lead one of the newborn renewal schools, the Cleveland Street School two blocks away.

But even with her own new start, it didn’t much ease the difficulty of closing a school she led for a decade.

“I still can’t talk about it,” she said the week after the last students had left, her voice cracking. “It’s hard . . . It’s part of the community.”

Anderson said she understood the human impact, too, and stressed that a central component of the new renewal schools will be neighborhood building, with faculty and staff knocking on doors. Other features: extended hours and social services available outside the school itself.

But leaving open a school like Eighteenth Avenue is neither educationally or financially sound, Anderson said. “I understand the emotional connections to a school,” she added. “They can become neighborhood institutions. But our job is to put children on the path to excellence.”

Back to the Beginning

On the school’s last Friday in June, I walked again through the red front door. Some of the staff had turned over in the eight years since I had been there last, but many remained. They were as friendly and accommodating as ever, even knowing why I was visiting.

John Strickland had been a physical education teacher at the school, one of the few men in the building and a dynamo of energy. He had the option of following Ervin to the new school, but was choosing another for its more modern facilities.

“This year was really, really emotional for me, because I knew this was it,” Strickland said. “I am not one who believes it is necessary to close schools down, especially in struggling communities.

“The school is supposed to be the pillars of a community, and I just have a problem shutting down schools and hospitals in struggling communities,” he said. “That is just my personal feeling.”

I asked Ervin what could have been done differently, what might have saved this school, and what will be different about this next round of reforms. She sounded like the woman I had met eight years earlier, talking about how much more she knew now, wanting to talk about the future rather than dwell on the past.

“We showed improvement but not at the leaps and bounds it needed to be,” she said of Eighteenth Avenue. “Coupled with that, we are the smallest school in the district. It is just not cost-effective, and it hasn't been cost-effective for the last three or four years.”

But she said the training for the renewal schools has been more intensive for principals, especially when it came to using data. The opportunity to choose her own teaching staff also is an advantage. Still, she isn’t making promises yet, only saying that this is a start.

“This is going to be really hard work, this is going to be really important work,” Ervin said. “We have an opportunity to show urban teachers can educate urban children in public schools at high levels. The world does not expect it to happen and the politics does not want it to happen."

“For me, I'm obviously not the youngest kid on the block and may not see this piece all the way through,” she said. “But I think the way we get it started will be a long way to determining to whether we can do it successfully, and I need to get it started right.”

The Last Hurrah

Three days later, Ervin would host the school’s final graduation ceremony, a special occasion for all parents to see their children celebrated for moving up to the next level. In districts like Newark where a third of the  students don’t finish high school, it can often be the last graduation a child will attend.  It was an especially solemn occasion this year, with the school itself reaching what could be the end of its life.

Nonetheless, it was a far cry from even the same event in 2005, the auditorium only half full and the graduating class of just 29 students. Only five of them were boys, a curious statistic; but there were only four boys in the seventh grade class behind them

There wasn’t much mention of the passing of Eighteenth Avenue from the stage. The beaming children and their proud families were caught up in their own world..

“I just ask when we look back at all the funny and crazy times we all shared as the last class to ever graduate from Eighteenth Avenue . . . I know thus is just a farewell and I wish nothing but love and success for all of you,” said Jean Moore, the class valedictorian. “Yes, we graduate today, but this is just a stepping stone to more opportunities in life.”   Maybe fitting, certainly unfair, as Ervin closed the ceremony with best wishes to the class, the fire alarm went off throughout the building; a siren’s blare drowned out the processional music from the sound system.

“We thank you for your time, and parents, we love your children and wish them well,” Ervin said over the alarm. “Thank you, and we will have our processional out. Please do not block the aisles.”

Outside, families waited to be let back into the building, while the Newark Fire Department went through what is almost a daily ritual, answering false alarms at schools. Ervin told families they could go home, but a few lingered longer, the streets around the building slowly emptying.

Felicia Hawes had attended the school, and that day saw her daughter Quazinah graduate. Her parents had attended it, too, she said.

“This was a good school, I was really, really upset that they closed this school down,” Hawes said. “It's been here a long time. I went here and both of my kids went here from pre-K to now.”

She was talking with Renee Pitts, whose fourth grade son will now transfer to Cleveland up the hill. She was more bitter.

“They build a new park, and they close the community and the school?” she said. “That doesn't make sense to me. How do you want a community to come together and you are tearing us apart? That doesn't make sense.”

A Charter for Eighteenth Avenue

Last week, as nearby schools began to prepare for the year ahead -- teachers cleaning their classrooms, sorting out new schedules and supplies -- a custodian led a tour through the Eighteenth Avenue schools.

Visitors included a team of architects and engineers from a prominent charter school that wanted to appraise the building. Anderson’s decision to close Eighteenth Avenue was an opportunity for the city’s growing charter school community to find some much-needed space.

The fastest growing among them is the TEAM Academy network. Part of the nationwide Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), it now has 200 schools in 25 states, including five in Newark. It has also been the lead player in a new generation of schools being proposed for Camden, where charter operators will be employed by nonprofit groups to run newly built public schools.

As part of its lease with Newark that could lead to a purchase, TEAM is set to renovate the school using publicly financed bonds. Some have put the cost at close $15 million.

An outdoor oil tank rented by the district a decade ago to serve as an emergency backup for the aging boiler was still there, now owned by the district and part of the deal. The scaffolding erected in 2003 around the outside doors to protect children from falling masonry was starting to rust itself, and needed to be patched together last year.

The KIPP team spent nearly four hours at the site, inspecting every room from the basement to the fourth floor, where students of a century ago during the city’s tuberculosis epidemic were said to have taken their classes to be closer to the fresh air on the roof. It was now no longer used at all, except for storage.

“We’re not talking about making this a Taj Mahal,” said Ryan Hill, the TEAM chief executive officer. “Just to get it usable, it’s going to be $15 million.”

Hill said TEAM had some reluctance about the deal, while some environmental evaluations were being wrapped up. But overall he thinks the renovation would be cost-effective.

“The bones are still there, we don’t have to start again,” Hill said. 

But he also offered a caveat. “We have standards of what we want all of our buildings to meet before we put kids in there, and this doesn’t meet that,” Hill said.

The same day, a sampling of former Eighteenth Avenue families were preparing to move on to their new schools. More than 100 children will go to Cleveland, with Ervin. Another 75 were expected will go to Quitman Street Renew School, which held a welcoming cookout for new parents and teachers.

 

Among them was Shrone Ramey, whose son will be entering third grade at Quitman after two years at Eighteenth Avenue. Her 14-year-old graduated in June. She had no complaints.

“I liked the class curriculum, I liked my son’s teachers, the staff itself was awesome and great,” she said of their old school.

“I attended the graduation,” Ramey continued, recalling the morning in June. “It was awesome, and I just hope for the best. It was very emotional. A time to spend with family, friends. Saying farewell to Eighteenth Avenue, it was kinda hard. I was sad to see it dissolve.”

While Eighteenth Avenue’s fate is uncertain, Ramey had turned to a new chapter in her children’s lives, her older son in high school, her younger one at a new elementary school.

“So far so good,” she said of Quitman. “I met the principal, the vice principal, I met a couple of teachers, a couple staff members. So far, they welcomed us in with open arms."

“From what I experienced today, it looks like it’s going to be a great place for my son.”

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