A coalition of black and Jewish alumni is fighting a state-run Newark Board of Education plan that would spell the end of the iconic Weequahic High School.
Located in what was once a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, the high school is a touchstone for a generation of now graying Jews — including novelist Philip Roth — who lived in Newark until the 1960s.
Under a master plan to revamp Newark’s 14 high schools devised by two appointees of Gov. Chris Christie, Weequahic’s coed student body will be replaced in September by two single-sex, non-charter public schools — the Eagle Academy of Young Men, currently located at an elementary school on Muhammad Ali Avenue, and an all-new Girls’ Academy.
Members of the Weequahic Alumni Association oppose the plan, saying it lacked input from the community and would sever the connection between the school and its alumni.
Hal Braff, who graduated in 1962 and serves as copresident of the alumni association, told NJJN the notion of closing the school “is damaging. It is really hurtful to those of us in the Alumni Association who have raised over $600,000 in scholarships and aid for students. It will put us out of business.
“Yes, maybe it’s time, since it is not working, to make some changes,” Braff conceded. “But there is no connection between the need to improve the quality of education for the kids who live in Newark and the closing of Weequahic High School. The problem there is poverty. The kids don’t come from families that treasure education.”
Newark’s schools have been under state control since 1995. Christie appointed schools superintendent Cami Anderson and commissioner of education Christopher Cerf, who issued the reorganization plan, called “One Newark.”
The Weequahic Alumni Association was formed in 1997 by Jewish and African-American graduates to provide college scholarships and other assistance to current students. Mary Dawkins, an African-American member of the class of 1971, is copresident. “We are fighting this actively,” she said. “We are extremely upset.”
Jacob Toporek, executive director of the State Association of Jewish Federations and a member of the Weequahic class of 1963, has been providing tactical lobbying advice to the Alumni Association.
“It is going to be a tough fight,” he predicted. “Perhaps kneejerk reaction is not the best thing at this point. It is time to gather your forces, gather your supporters, and go forward.”
Phil Yourish (class of ‘64), executive director of the Alumni Association, said, “All we can do is mobilize our alumni, inform them, and get them to communicate their displeasure as strongly as possible to the superintendent of schools and to local, county, and state officials.
“We are hoping the Jewish alumni who now live in the Newark suburbs will use their clout.”
Dawkins, who holds a PhD in human services from Rutgers University, told NJJN she got “a good education at Weequahic.”
“The state has failed our students. It needs to understand that these are our schools, and we need to fight for our schools, as much as the Jewish community if not more so. Many of the old alums from the African-American community are continuing to support the school,” she said.
No one from the board of education returned repeated requests from NJ Jewish News to discuss the plan. A spokesman for the Newark Public Schools, Matthew Frankel, told The Star-Ledger that the “One Newark” plan was meant to shore up public schools in the South Ward, saying 40 percent of its families applied to charter schools last year.
“The vision for One Newark is to ensure 100 excellent schools and thriving communities in every ward,” he told The Star-Ledger. “To achieve this vision, we must have the courage to address tough realities — including historic under-performance and crumbling buildings that [have] families actively seeking other options.”
In 2013, NJ Monthly rated Weequahic 258 out of the 328 high schools it studied in New Jersey. U.S. News and World Report magazine said Weequahic was “below average” in terms of the math and language proficiency and college readiness of its students, who are all black and Latino.
Like others opposed to the proposed changes, Paul Tractenberg, class of ’56, insists “there is really no reason why the kids who go there now can’t get something comparable to the great education I received at Weequahic High School.”
The alumni will face a challenge on Jan. 6, the first day for students and their parents to select schools for the 2014-15 academic year. Eagle Academy parents have already been told their school is relocating to the Weequahic building.
“What we are afraid of is on that day, when students receive the list, Weequahic won’t be on it,” said Yourish. “That means the school system is going ahead with its plans, but that doesn’t mean we will accept that and that we won’t continue to try to reverse the decision.”
Dawkins said the Alumni Association will continue to fight for the identity of Weequahic High.
“We will continue to raise dollars for scholarships and encourage kids to come to school and provide them with support they wouldn’t normally get,” she said. “This year we have committed $98,000 for students at Weequahic High School. We have to raise these dollars and we can’t raise them for a school that no longer bears the name Weequahic. There is a culture at the school — not just the Jewish culture, but the culture of pride in your high school.”