Dear Newark School Board members,

As you approach the reorganization of a newly-constituted school board, what are your intentions? Are you comfortable with district oversight and management, particularly the priorities of Superintendent Roger Leon? In your eyes, is student well-being and academic growth satisfactory? Are we going in the right direction?

Here’s why I ask: As a lifelong Newark resident and a father of school-aged children, I have the right to know if you feel any changes are necessary in a school district where nearly 73%of our third through eighth graders aren’t reading on grade level. If we zero in on third-graders, just 19% meet proficiency levels according to last spring’s state assessments. 

Sure, it’s easy to hate standardized tests. But let’s not shoot the messenger, let’s look at the message.

Here’s a fact for you: Literacy rates have a direct correlation with how students do after they finish their formal schooling. Just as importantly, literacy rates correlate with incarceration, which some people call the “School-To-Prison Pipeline.” According to this research, two out of three students who can’t read proficiently by 4th grade will end up in jail or on welfare.

More proof?

According to the Reading Foundation, “low achievement in reading is the common denominator in school discipline, attendance, dropout problems, and juvenile crime. Academically, students not reading on grade level by the end of third grade struggle in every class, year after year, because 85% of the curriculum is taught by reading.”

Let’s run the numbers. According to the state there are 2,708 third graders in Newark Public Schools District. That means 514 of Newark district’s third-graders can read at grade-level and 2,194 are not reading at grade level. 

If two-thirds of those students who can’t read proficiently—1,460 children—don’t catch up by next year when they’re in fourth grade, they’ll end up in prison or unemployed.

That sounds really harsh. It’s a hard truth to confront. But we elected you to change things for the better. While only 3% of us showed up to vote, you represent all of us and how you choose to spend the district’s 1.3 billion annual budget is just as much our business as your business. 

So here’s a question for you: Are you going to call in whoever is in charge of our reading instruction and find out what interventions are planned for those 1,460 third-graders headed for jail or the welfare line? Are you going to hold Mr. Leon accountable for the decisions he and his staff make? 

These are real children who are dependent right this minute on your wisdom, on your courage, on your commitment to improving student outcomes. Will you be accountable to those third-graders and their families? Or will you be accountable to politicians who dismiss bad news with a sneer?

I’m asking you to take action to save those 1,460 children, as well the other 39,000 in the district. If you don’t face the difficult reality we live each day with a determination to turn things around, all of Newark will pay the price. 

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