State Run Kids – Catalina’s Story

This is Part Three of an ongoing storytelling series by NJ Communities United featuring parents, students and families in Newark & Camden. Look for them Monday mornings. The school districts in these cities have been stripped of local democratic control, making it possible for privately-run corporations (and their non-profit front groups) to siphon taxpayer money from public schools. These stories underscore the realities of what it means for families to contend with corporate-driven policies on their children’s education. Promoted by Rosi.

On September 20th, NJ Communities United held a Parent Speak Out at the “One Newark” universal enrollment center in solidarity with community partners from the Alliance to Save Newark Public Schools. More than a dozen parents and community leaders signed up to speak about the controversial enrollment program that uses a “secret algorithm” to funnel kids into charter schools, while under-enrolling students in traditional public schools. The enrollment program was designed by Christie-appointed Superintendent Christopher Cerf and implemented over the objections of Newark parents. As a State-controlled school district, the residents of Newark had no choice but to acquiesce to Christie’s demands.

Since the enrollment program was launched in 2014, there have been numerous reports of students being assigned to schools in communities far from where they live, of siblings being assigned to different schools in different parts of the city, and parents being denied their first, second and even third choice of school placement.

But nobody expected to hear what Catalina had to say.

When Catalina arrived, she was attempting – for the Xth time – to have her 5-year-old son assigned to a kindergarten class in their neighborhood. She didn’t know about the Parent Speak Out, but when she walked out of the enrollment center in tears, the community surrounded her and comforted her.

Catalina made the courageous decision to share her story in front of the large crowd. What she shared was heartfelt, heart-breaking, and shocked everyone who listened.

“I’ve been trying to enroll [my son] into Ann Street School because of health issues…I’m not allowed to even give them [the enrollment center] my medical records to show them…Every time I come here, they don’t listen. They told me that ‘it doesn’t matter how many times you come we are not going to do anything.’ I’ve had to cancel every single one of my medical appointments because I hear from the doctor that I can’t keep taking my son because of my transfusions. He is still at home and I’m not getting my treatment.”

Catalina’s medical issues prevented her from dropping-off and picking-up her son every day to the school he was assigned all the way across town. Because she couldn’t manage the daily commutes, Catalina had to keep her son at home.

Catalina’s son not only missed the first three weeks of school, but Catalina herself had to forgo life-saving medical treatments because she had no one else to care for her 5-year-old. Her pleas to the enrollment center workers fell on deaf ears.

Later that same day, the community turned-out in force to a Newark Public Schools board meeting. They encouraged Catalina to join them and to share her story with the Board and Christie’s appointed Superintendent, Chris Cerf. Her voice was finally heard, and within days she had secured placement for her 5-year-old son in a kindergarten class at the Ann Street School just a few blocks from where she lives. Catalina is now able to resume her medical treatments.

But Catalina is just one of hundreds of families in Newark who have had serious struggles with the “One Newark” universal enrollment system. For community activists, it was never just about Catalina…it was about the system. It was, however, Catalina’s voice, that broke down the problems and underscored the dysfunctional nature of a Wall Street-driven effort to funnel children into charter schools.

Because of Catalina and the organized and outspoken coalition of community activists and community members, the Newark Public Schools Board of Education voted 7-to-2 on October 24th to dismantle the “One Newark” enrollment program. The only dissenting votes were cast by Kim Gaddy and Tave Padilla, outspoken supporters of corporate charter schools.

However, Newark Public Schools are still under State-control. Superintendent Chris Cerf has the authority to veto the Board’s vote – another example of local democracy being undermined by Wall Street and charter school interests. But the community is already fighting to protect the democratic vote and decision by the elected Board members. NJ Communities United recently issued a petition demanding that Chris Cerf honor the Board’s decision and allow the controversial and broken “One Newark” system to be dismantled. (You can support these efforts by signing the petition at

Catalina is an example of how one person’s voice can electrify a movement, alter a public debate, and affect change – even in a City where democracy has been silenced for two decades.

New Jersey Communities United is a progressive grassroots community organization committed to building power for low and moderate income people across the State of New Jersey. 

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