This is the first post of 2017 in a monthly storytelling series by NJ Communities United featuring parents, students and families in Newark & Camden. Look for them the last Monday of every month. 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.
Lettoyia is a hard-working mother of two boys, Joshua and Josias, ages 8 and 9 years old. She lives in North Camden, where only one public school remains.
“I’m a product of Camden Public Schools,” says Lettoyia. “It never occurred to me that my children wouldn’t have that same opportunity. And it certainly never occurred to me that making sure my boys get a good education would turn into the nightmare we’re living now.”
When Lettoyia first enrolled her children in school, her first thought was to get them into the public school in her neighborhood. But what she saw at that school gave her second thoughts. “The only public school in North Camden is not a place I wanted to send my boys. These kids are my world and unfortunately I don’t believe that school is safe.”
Chronic underfunding of traditional public schools in cities like Camden and Newark have meant that public schools put off basic maintenance, operate with the bare minimum of staff, and have large class sizes. For Lettoyia, the underfunding of her neighborhood public school raised lots of concerns about security, safety and short-staffing.
“If there were another public school in our neighborhood – that was properly funded – I would absolutely want my boys enrolled there. But there are no other public schools left. My only choice was to get my boys in a charter school. And that’s been a nightmare.”
Lettoyia’s youngest son Joshua attends Camden Community Charter school. So far she hasn’t run into any issues with his enrollment there. Then again, her youngest child doesn’t suffer from the same learning disabilities that plague her oldest son Josias.
“My oldest son suffers with behavior and learning issues that make things very difficult for him. From early on, the Camden school district assigned him with an IEP – an Individualized Education Plan – which gives him access to one-on-one instruction and other services in school so he can keep up with his peers academically and socially. Well…that’s what is supposed to happen anyway.”
Lettoyia first enrolled her oldest son in the City Invincible charter school. “I didn’t really have any issues with City Invincible, except that they just up and closed down. I was surprised because what kind of school just shuts their doors? When I was growing up, closing a public school was a big deal and there would be lots of community meetings, lots of time for the school district to plan, and lots of time for parents to plan. But this school was open at the end of one school year and closed before the start of the next. It was very odd.”
Lettoyia then turned to a Mastery charter school. “I was very upfront with them about my son’s special needs because I wanted to be sure they had the programs and staff to keep him on the right track. But Mastery was more concerned with disciplining him than with helping him cope and overcome his disabilities. He was always getting suspended. And I was losing time – and money – at work trying to deal with the situation. But mostly I was angry that he wasn’t getting the schooling he needed.”
So Lettoyia moved on and registered both her children at Camden Community Charter school.
“When I went in to register Josias and Joshua, I was very, very clear about Josias’ needs. I didn’t want the same problems with this school that I had with Mastery. I asked direct questions about the programs they had for children with learning and behavioral struggles. I reviewed his Individualized Learning Plan with them. I could not have been more clear about his needs, my expectations and the school’s ability to do right by him. They told me about the programs they had, the expert staff that would work with Josias and I left feeling good about getting my boys into this school.”
That meeting happened last summer just before the start of the 2016/2017 school year. It was only a matter of weeks before Lettoyia became uneasy.
“I asked about his IEP and how his one-on-one evaluation went. They didn’t tell me ‘how’ he did, and they didn’t share the evaluation with me, but they said they did it. That was the first red flag.”
By then end of October it was clear that – IEP or not – the charter school was not providing Josias with the support he needs. “He started acting up. His behavior was getting worse and worse. For me, this was a clear sign that the school did not have a plan for him and that they were not taking his disabilities seriously. But I didn’t have any extra time to investigate what was happening. If I don’t work, we don’t eat.”
The situation came to a head in early November when Josias had an outburst at school and threw things off from the principal’s desk. He was suspended for two weeks. “This was not what our family needed just before the holidays. Taking care of Josias for two weeks cut into work and cut into my paycheck. The holidays were not going to be what I had hoped. I didn’t know at the time that it was about to get worse.”
After his two week suspension, Lettoyia dropped Josias off at school then headed to work. It was Monday, November 21st. The next thing she knew, her boss marched up to her, clearly agitated, to let her know that she needed to go home and deal with her family.
“I was shocked that somehow my boss was pulled into a personal family situation. But it didn’t compare with my shock when I called my mother to find out what was happening.”
The principal of Camden Community Charter school called the police on Lettoyia and reported her for child neglect because she dropped her son off at school. By the time she returned home, the police were at her door and the Department of Family and Youth Services had been called to investigate.
“How could this happen? I’m a good mother. I dropped off my children at school so I could go to work so I could pay our rent and cloth them and feed them and house them. I do everything a mother is supposed to do. I love my boys and this absolutely crushed me.”
The case worker assigned to Lettoyia was equally flabbergasted by the situation and refused to let the charges against Lettoyia stand. Instead, the case worker accompanied Lettoyia to the school. The school refused the case worker, but did speak with Lettoyia. She was instructed to bring Josias back to school the next day and everything would be fine.
“So I dropped-off Josias again the next day. And sure enough, a few hours at work and here comes my boss again – even more agitated – to tell me that he received an automated call from the school that my son was not in class. This was already a tough week, and now I was panicked because if Josias was not in class, then where could be? I felt like someone ripped my heart out of my body. What was going on!?!”
Lettoyia immediately called the school and found out that it was true – Josias was not in class. Instead, he was being held in principal’s office all day because “that was standard protocol for a child returning from suspension.” That was November 22nd.
“None of it made sense, none of it. But the principal told me to come back with Josias again the next day so we could discuss his IEP. When I went back to the school the next day to discuss the IEP, I was told that Josias was permanently suspended from school. I just froze. I mean, what was happening? What did that mean? What was I going to do? What was going to happen to Josias?”
It’s now almost February and Josias hasn’t stepped foot in a school since the day he was expelled on November 23rd. Lettoyia was able to secure in-home instruction through the school district, but the teacher assigned to work with Josias is frequently late, doesn’t stay long, and sometimes spends as little as 15 minutes with Josias. In fact, just last week, the instructor didn’t even show up for a few days. “He’s basically had no schooling or education at all recently,” says Lettoyia.
Lettoyia is working to find Josias the school he needs, but her options are limited. “I’m looking at a school right now, but it’s 30 minutes from our house when the traffic is good. And with Josias’ history now, charter schools aren’t lining up to offer him a seat.”
When asked again about sending Josias to the public school Lettoyia responds, “it’s just not safe enough there for him. I wish I had more choices, but I don’t. I don’t know what’s happening with Camden’s schools, but I do know that our public schools are underfunded and broken, and all these charter schools everywhere don’t want to deal with a child like Josias. I’ve reached out to agencies and organizations and filed complaints and asked for assistance, but so far no one can do anything.”
“Apparently, it’s okay to break our public schools and not have standards or regulations that require charter schools to provide for special needs children like Josias,” says Lettoyia. “You have no idea how many tears I’ve shed. This just isn’t right.”