Senior Natalie Hernandez experienced a culture shock when she realized that her high school in Elizabeth, Admiral William F. Halsey Jr. Health and Public Safety Academy, did not get the same care or privileges compared to the high schools for the gifted in Elizabeth.
The 22-year-old, studying Global Studies and Political Science, is now running for the Elizabeth Board of Education. Hernandez along with two other candidates are running a progressive grassroots campaign to unseat three current members of the Elizabeth Board of Education.
On August 28th, they announced their campaign along with their ballot slogan “Justice for Elizabeth”. Hernandez says there has been a strong push for change on the Elizabeth board over an ongoing division between privileges granted to students who attend so-called magnet schools as opposed to students who do not attend a school with high academic standing.
Students attending standard schools such as Admiral William F. Halsey Jr. Health and Public Safety Academy have been faced with racial inequity, lack of guidance and support and the constant inconsistency of failing to listen to the community, she contends.
Hernandez explained that the board has not made enough efforts to assist students and their families when it comes to language barriers and addressing concerns the community may have.
“During meetings, they have not made it easier for information to be translated for those who don’t speak English as their first language. They leave the public speaking section to the last few minutes and invite the choir to make it all seem great”, Hernandez said.
She added that students who were thrown into these schools did not receive fair treatment and rather than taking the time to hire guidance counselors, they focused on hiring police officers. Many students were also pushed to attend the military rather than a university after their senior year.
“You feel like a criminal in your own learning space”, Hernandez stated.
Hernandez further expressed her concern for specialized classes and the need for more testing towards learning disabilities for students who may have problems at home or are struggling in school need direction. She explained that the extra services might make a difference in what sociologists call a school to prison pipeline explained as young adults who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and are likely to be incarcerated to harsh school policies. The reality is that if schools aren’t setting up all of their students for success, they are setting them up for failure and an inauspicious future.
Pat Politano, spokesman of the Elizabeth School District, said the district provides services for 3,513 special needs children. The district provides education at more than 100 highly-specialized schools for children with needs. The special needs cost to the district are $65 million out of the $505 million operating budget. That includes more than 500 instructional staff and 291 special education teachers.
According to the Elizabeth Public Schools official website, the board has major responsibilities for the adoption of a budget that will provide for buildings, staff, materials, and equipment to enable the school system to carry out its functions.
“To pay for these services, the district has an operating budget of $505 million; and a total
budget of $578 million,” Pat Politano, spokesman of the Elizabeth School District said.
Kason Little, Justice Advocate expressed concerns similar to Hernandez where the board has lacked transparency, equity and is in strong need of a structural change.
Although Little is not running for a seat on the board he has spent years fighting against the injustice that has been prevalent among the school district.
Little said that some of the main problems include transparency, equity, the absence of focus towards special education students and the strong need for structural change. He presented a life skills class which would be embedded into the curriculum and require a $5.4 million investment. This was overlooked by the board, he said.
“There needs to be federal oversight because they’re incapable of running it themselves. Any change that has been made was a sugar-coated, watered-down change.There has never been fluent change,” Little stated.
According to the Public School Review, Admiral William F. Halsey Junior Health & Public Safety Academy placed in the bottom 50 percent of all schools in New Jersey for overall test scores for the 2017-18 school year.
Politano explained that the district is recognized as one of the top urban school districts in the nation with Terence C. Reilly School No. 7 cited as a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education and Elizabeth High — Frank J. Cicarell Academy ranked as one of the top 50 high schools in the country.
Both schools are considered schools for the gifted and talented, leaving them in high academic standing.
This upcoming election will provide opportunities for people to speak out on what is working within the district and what may need to be changed.
“This is only the start to a long journey of bringing power back to the people,” Hernandez said.