Newark charter school’s Black educators, community members speak out about inequities

Great Oaks Legacy Charter School administrators, teachers, parents, alumni, and students packed a third-floor classroom at Downtown Elementary School on Thursday to unleash frustrations that they say have been building for years.

One by one, at the monthly meeting of the board of trustees, they described their failed attempts at getting board members to address pay inequity, lack of resources, and the recent firing of the high school’s dean of students. They also raised concerns about racist practices, disparate treatment, and emails about their concerns that had gone unanswered for months.

Great Oaks, one of Newark’s largest charter school operators, has several campuses in the city with grades pre-K-12 and serves mostly students of color, with Black students making up about 89% of enrollment in 2019-2020, according to the most recent comparative data available. According to Great Oaks’ “Fair Employment Practices,” school leaders “seek to have its staff demographics mirror that of the population of the students it serves,” but speakers such as Lisa Powell felt students and staff do not have diverse representation at the school .

During the meeting, Powell, chief academic officer for elementary schools, expressed her frustration about the charter school’s support for students with disabilities and her complaints about prejudiced treatment.

“I want to admit it’s embarrassing for me to be here, especially as a Black woman who’s lived in Newark for 54 years,” Powell said. “I have to sit in front of a board for a school that I work for and bring up the issues of microaggressions, paternalism, and discrimination as it relates to institutionalized racism.”

Great Oaks founder and executive director, Jared Taillefer, led Thursday night’s meeting and said the board would respond to all concerns within 30 days, echoing a promise made during May’s board meeting in response to issues over pay inequities and discrimination, according to administrators and teachers at Thursday’s meeting.

“Great Oaks Legacy Charter School and the Board of Trustees take all of these concerns very seriously,” said chief strategy officer Dominick DiFalco, in an email to Chalkbeat Newark. “Feedback is paramount to us, and the voices of our school community matter deeply. We will respond as swiftly as possible and look forward to continuing to listen as we work to address the issues that were raised.”

At Thursday’s meeting, trustee Dr. Karma Warren pressed the board to provide answers to the school community after several educators claimed their emails had not received a response.

“This was something that was presented in May and it is now almost October and we’re still having the same thing being presented to us,” said Warren over speaker phone during the meeting. “And I just want to know what we’re doing?”

Over the last five years, Powell said, she had sent numerous emails to board members, spoken with her immediate supervisor, and talked to charter school lawyers to discuss issues about the education provided to students with disabilities and the disparate treatment she’s received as a Black woman after raising concerns with her superiors. Powell did not name any staff members at the meeting but said her emails to the board and conversations with other school leaders include detailed information about what she’s experienced at the charter school.

“What they’re doing with students [with disabilities] is not aligned with what the state says they can and cannot do,” Powell added. “I’m speaking on behalf of students, teachers, and leaders and I’m looking for a resolution. It’s taken me five years to get here and I don’t think it’s fair.”

Dr. Juli-Anne Benjamin, Great Oaks director of curriculum instruction for K-8 grade, also raised concerns over pay inequity with her salary when compared to her predecessors and others serving in her role. At the meeting, Benjamin, an educator for the last 29 years, said there is a pay disparity between white educators at the charter school and Black staffers and other staffers of color.

She has also been discussing her contract with Taillefer and the interim chief people officer since May.

“I want to make sure that I am communicating the racism, prejudice, the discriminatory practices that are happening as a Black educator and Black scholar here in Newark, New Jersey,” said Benjamin, a former New York City public schools educator. “I am unsure if you received my email about my inequities and the lived experiences and history of what I’ve experienced here at Great Oaks.”

Teachers also spoke out about wages and asked board members to release a pay scale and pay information for certified and uncertified teachers.

Amanda Hernandez, who was placed as a lead special education teacher this school year, said she was promised a stipend for her coverage but has not received the extra compensation in over a month. She also raised concerns over the lack of resources for her new role, missing services required in a student’s Individualized Education Program, and a mold spot growing in the corner of her classroom.

“I would like some follow-up on that as well and in writing, if we should expect to get compensated and actual verbiage for long-term and short-term coverage is as far as scholarships go,” Hernandez added.

Students speak out against firing of high school dean of students

More than half of the meeting room was filled with parents, students, and alumni describing a decline in the high school’s culture and student behavior after charter school leaders suddenly fired Kyle Ramsay, the high school’s former dean, over the summer. Ramsay, a Black man and Great Oaks employee for the last seven years, was a “role model” for students often helping them navigate home and school life, student and parent speakers said.

“The person who helps the students is here, Mr. Ramsay, and they got rid of him,” said one of the parents at the meeting while pointing at Ramsay in the room. “That was our go-to, that was my safety key.”

Alumni and students took turns describing the help Ramsay provided them during their time in high school. Many said they would not have graduated without his support. Likaya Tillman, a 2019 alumni, said she lost a Black teacher every year during her time at the high school.

“You need to hire more diverse teachers. You need to be more selective of who you are hiring,” said Tillman at the meeting. “You need to hire teachers that can connect with Black students, not fire them.”

According to Ramsay’s attorney, Rachel Ramsay-Lowe, the former dean was fired in July after being sick with COVID and missing a Zoom meeting, which he expressed to his bosses at the time. Ramsay-Lowe said the former dean was never served a RICE notice, a letter from the board with its intention to discuss Ramsay’s employment, or a written warning regarding his employment. Ramsay was fired after “failing to meet expectations,” according to his termination letter.

After the public comments, board trustee Michael Duffy said he would review the emails and issues raised during the meeting and would discuss next steps with board members internally.

Still, many in the Great Oaks school community were not convinced anything would change.

“I don’t really believe anything is going to be done,” Powell said, “but I’m hoping it will since we are here to support Black children in a Black community.”

Jessie Gomez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at [email protected]

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