This is Part One 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.
Suleika is the proud and dedicated mother of three beautiful children ages 3, 7 and 10. When she looks at her children, she sees the future in them. “They are Camden’s next generation and we need to build a strong foundation for them so our city can thrive.”
But Suleika worries that the future may not be as bright for her children as she hopes.
The controversial decision to strip the Camden School Board of their powers and place the school district under state control has had far reaching consequences for parents and children in Camden. What may have appeared to be an attempt to rescue the school district has turned into a situation where parents have had their democratic voices stripped away. Parents like Sulieka contend that their concerns fall on deaf ears because the Christie-appointed Superintendent of Camden Public Schools, Paymon Rouhanifard, is accountable to Chris Christie and the State Board of Education, NOT the parents and students of Camden.
For Sulieka, this means her children are subjected to bullying, sexual harassment and questionable lunches. Despite her complaints, there have been no changes in school policies or actions to address the situation with her children.
For instance, Sulieka’s children often come home from school starving because of how bad the food is in the schools. Despite having raised the issue, the school district is not listening to her concerns – and other parents have registered the same complaint with the school administration.
“Just recently, I had to pick up my 10 daughter for an appointment during lunch. I asked if we could take her lunch with me, and I was disappointed when I saw that her lunch looks like a lunchable. It wasn’t enough food and I had to buy lunch for my daughter that day,” says Suleika. “If this is what is provided to our children on daily basis, they are starving our children. If Aramark cannot provide decent, nutritious food for our children, why are we paying them so much money?”
Unfortunately, food is not Suleika’s biggest concern. Her oldest daughter has struggled with being bullied in school and has even been subjected to sexual harassment. “I do not take this issue lightly,” says Suleika. “This is my daughter and I am her fiercest defender. The bureaucracy for dealing with these very serious issues takes too long and still hasn’t led to any meaningful changes to protect my daughter.”
Transportation has also been a big problem for Suleika’s children. “Last year my child was provided transportation because of his needs. I have since relocated across town and provided the district with our new information. On the first day of school this year, I received a call that the bus driver was waiting at our old address. There is no reason why this information has not been updated. Even after speaking with driver and calling the district, as of today, my son still has no transportation to get to school.”
Suleika believes that the schools would be more responsive to parents if residents had direct control over the school board. Instead of investing in traditional public schools and addressing issues of bullying, sexual harassment, healthy food and transporation, Superintendent Rouhanifard is focused on moving limited resources into corporate Renaissance schools.
“These are our children that we’re talking about – OUR CHILDREN! How can anyone prioritize corporate interests over the health, safety and well-being of our children?”
Sulieka is just one of many parents in the Camden school district who struggle against the consequences of what it means to raise children in a state controlled school district where the school board is powerless to affect changes to address bullying, harassment, food and transportation. She is now organizing alongside other parents to fight to restore local control to the school district so parents have a voice and direct influence over policies and actions that families desperately need to provide a safe and healthy learning environment for their children.
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.