Last week I had the opportunity to interview long-time Newark resident Tafshier Cosby-Thomas on her experiences with the city’s public schools: traditional, magnet, and charter. While Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet, under instructions from Governor Phil Murphy, takes a “pause” on authorizing charter expansion in order to conduct his “review,” let’s pierce the smog of special interests and politicking around this hot-button issue and actually talk to parents whose children’s educational trajectory rides on decisions made in the Governor’s Office. For a video of Tafshier, scroll to the bottom.
Laura: As a third-generation Newark resident, can you tell us about your own experiences with Newark Public Schools (NPS) and school choice?
Tafshier: I can go back further than that! My mom, Annette Cosby, grew up here and graduated from Malcolm Shabazz High School; in 1969 it was called South Side. She was passionate about education — I got that from her — and she wanted better for me and my three sisters. And so when I was four years old we moved to East Orange, and then Orange — we were the first African-American family on my block — so that we could attend better schools. That’s school choice too! Once I graduated from Orange Middle School we moved back to East Orange and I attended Essex County Vo-Tech North 13th Street Campus for high school.
Laura: And you have three children, right?
Tafshier: Yes! Two of them have graduated — my 28 and 22 year-olds — and I have my 17 year-old in his last year of high school. With each one we’ve had different educational experiences.
Laura: Tell me about that.
Tafshier: My oldest attended Newark Public Schools, then we found out about the state voucher program. We applied and he attended Blessed Sacrament Catholic School from 4th-5th grade. In 6th grade he came back to NPS, where he attended until his 8th grade graduation. At that time we were zoned for what was then West Side High School. This school was unacceptable to us and so, at a huge financial sacrifice, we sent him to St. Benedict’s Prep for high school. My kids refer to that period as “the time we had no cable,” lol. St Benedict’s Prep was a wonderful school and really prepared our son for college. He attended Bloomfield College and plans on returning to complete his degree.
Laura: Why was West Side unacceptable?
Tafshier: The curriculum lacked any sort of depth that would have challenged our son and the school itself was infested with gangs. My son would not be safe there and the school would not give him what he needed, both academically and socially. Now West Side High School is a much better school.
Laura: Tell me about your second child.
Tafshier: My daughter attended NPS all the way from K-6. She is super-bright! When they tested her in 3d grade she was reading at a 7th grade level. NPS really didn’t know what to do with her and so they made her a sort of “teacher’s helper” and sometimes they’d send her upstairs to the middle school. Actually, her 3rd grade teacher told me I should get her out of NPS and send her to a private school. I thought really hard about it during the years but then we had the opportunity for her to attend one of the Newark magnets, University High School, starting in 7th grade. That school was fantastic and really prepared her for college. She graduated from Stockton University last May — she went abroad for a semester to Cyprus! — and in January she will go to China to teach English.
Laura: And now we get to you 17-year-old son, who is now a senior in high school, right?
Tafshier: Yes. My younger boy went to NPS through 4th grade — do you notice the pattern here? I’m taking each consecutive child out earlier and earlier — but I started trying to get him out in 2nd grade.
Laura: How did you try to get him out?
Tafshier: I put him in the lottery for KIPP charter schools, even though I knew they didn’t start until 5th grade! I just wanted to learn from the experience and be prepared. They had lotteries then — now we have Universal Enrollment — so it was literally luck of the draw. In April of his 4th grade year, I went to the lottery and his name didn’t get pulled. I didn’t know what to do. But in August the phone rang and it was Pedro!
Laura: Who is Pedro?
Tafshier: Pedro Lebre! Everyone knows Pedro because he’s the one who calls when your name comes off the waiting list. Now, this was on a Friday and KIPP’s calendar started the following Monday. When he asked me if I wanted the slot, I was like, “Absolutely!” I did a happy dance right in my living room. My son was going to KIPP’s Rise Academy!
I want to make sure you understand that I didn’t leave NPS with hardness in my heart. I’ll never turn my back on NPS as I continued to volunteer at the school and attend the Christmas events.
Laura: What was the transition like for your son, moving from NPS to KIPP?
Tafshier: At first it was really difficult. My son is a very quiet kid, quite introverted, and he had become accustomed to such a different style. Don’t get me wrong: his teachers at NPS were great. But even he observed to me that it took those teachers a very long time to get their classes under control. For one hour of class there would be 30 minutes of distractions. He told me, “Mom, I can’t stay focused.”
But compared to NPS the classrooms at KIPP were quiet and he was able to focus there. But, more importantly, he made made the transition quickly because the teachers there just make the kids so excited about learning.
Laura: How do you mean?
Tafshier: Oh, his teachers are young, excited, and make everything fun. He’d come home from school and log on to Khan Academy, do his homework. It’s just part of the fabric of the school, that teachers regard learning as fun and that carries over to the kids. Most of the teachers get there early, although school starts at 7:30 and goes til 4. His 6th grade math teacher would get there at 6 am for kids who wanted to spend extra time on math and my son begged me take him school at 6 am! I’ve never seen anything like it. The students are excited to be there, excited to earn points, excited to see their papers on the wall. And they talk about college from Day One. Not graduating is not an option. During some Saturday school days they take them to visit colleges. I think my son has been to 20 colleges! He knows what to looks for on the college tours: the graduation rates, the student-teacher ratios, the travel abroad programs, whether there are clubs for African-American students. He is so informed!
Laura: Can you tell me about your role as a school choice advocate?
Tafshier: It is my passion — I think I got this from my mother — to make sure that all parents and children receive the best education they can, that there are quality seats for all children. It’s just honest-driven work that can’t happen without close communication between parents and schools. It’s not enough for me to attend open hours and have access to Powerschool. I need to exercise oversight, and so do all parents. I expect accountability.
Laura: Do you think NPS is improving?
Tafshier: Some schools have gotten better. And I think the trend will continue because I’m seeing more collaboration between charters and NPS. KIPP just did a consortium for teachers and included NPS staff. But I don’t understand why NPS can’t incorporate some of the successful aspects of charter or magnet schools into making the schools better.
Laura: Do you think the “charter wars” in Newark have calmed down? Is it still as bad between pro-charter and anti-charter folk?
Tafshier: I think that off-camera it’s gotten better. A lot more parents want to work together. And there’s a quiet movement happening. Oh, there are still those loudmouths, but the truth is that lots of families have their children in some combination of charter and district. Our children play together, we see each other at Shoprite, and we are part of the same communities.
When we had school vouchers — like the one I used for my oldest — people just went along. With charters there was this great outcry. I never saw anything like it.
Laura: What do you think caused the outcry?
Tafshier: It’s partially about funding that NPS is losing, and partially about change and choice happening throughout the city of Newark. Parents are making choices for their children and they’re choosing charters. They are using their power and exercising their right to choose what’s best for their kids. Everything a parent does is to ensure their children are successful. Why would anyone get in the way of that?