ANALYSIS: Newark Superintendent León Crosses the Line As He Promotes A School Fraught With Violence

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Ready for your dose of cognitive dissonance?

Yesterday at 10:39 am  Chalkbeat published an exposé of Newark’s Malcolm X Shabazz High School, describing the school’s continual violence (six times the district average) and abject failure to adequately educate students. (Nine out of ten students fail reading proficiency tests; the state withholds how many students are proficient in math “to protect student privacy” but Chalkbeat says it’s 3%. Shabazz is ranked #2192 out of NJ’s 2221 public schools.)

Yesterday at 3:10 pm Newark Public Schools District, under the direction of Superintendent Roger León, sent out a press release entitled  “Make Malcolm X Shabazz High School Your #1 Choice,” touting the school as a “premier academy” with “a rich history, currently the home of an incredible student body poised to join such greatness” and urging parents to enroll their children there.

When does boosterism become educational fraud?

León may have breached that tipping point.

Here are just a few of the facts about Shabazz meticulously documented by Chalkbeat:

  • “In October, a melee in the cafeteria sent the school into lockdown, according to students and videos. In a separate incident, two students punched and kicked a young woman as she cowered in a hallway, another video shows. In November, a gunman fired at students just after dismissal. Around the same time, a fight outside the school ended with a group of students stomping on a young man….According to student videos,”the principal, wearing a black suit, rushes into a crowd of dozens to break up a fight. In another, a young woman pummels a student on the floor of the main office. In yet another, four young men assault a fifth student in a stairwell. ‘The incident could be described as extremely violent and predatory in nature,’ the incident report reads.”
  • “Shabazz’s graduation rate fell to 62% last year, almost 20 percentage points below the district rate, and just 1 in 3 graduates headed to college in fall 2020…This November, nearly 60% of Shabazz students were chronically absent — more than any other Newark high school.” (Note: teacher attendance isn’t anything to crow about either–the most recent DOE data says that on an average day 77.8% of teachers were present, not counting those out on approved school business.)
  • “This school year, about 31% of Shabazz students have disabilities — nearly twice the districtwide rate. Some parents of students with disabilities say district employees steered their children to the school.” One former student said Shabazz was known “for being a school that you get dumped into.”

What do Superintendent León and district officials say in response to the Chalkbeat article and to parents like Shanaya Thomas who disenrolled her two sons because, she told León in a email, “you can’t keep my kids safe?” From the press release:

  • “We believe that as a school we are teaching all the time. Every hallway interaction, home visit, and family meeting communicates who we are, what we value, and why we are here.”
  • “In the spirit of high expectations and in the quest of excellence, every staff member participates in a multitude of trainings in student engagement, differentiated instruction, and social-emotional learning.”
  • “There is no doubt that Malcolm X Shabazz is on the move and trending upward.”

Actually, Shabazz is trending downward as parents vote with their feet –the school is in the South Ward, where many high-performing public charters are located—and enrollment is dropping precipitously. In  2018 Shabazz’s school enrollment was 446; now it’s down to 277, with the current freshman class numbering 58 students. (The school enjoyed a brief renaissance from 2011-2015 under the leadership of Gemar Mills, dubbed the “turnaound principal,” who, after taking the helm at age 27, elevated school culture, enrollment, and student outcomes through a whole-sale education reform effort.  Mills is now Executive Director of College Achieve Paterson, a public charter network in the city where he grew up.)

León’s duplicity can’t be ascribed to ignorance. He regularly receives texts and videos from Shabazz staff and students documenting the violence. For instance, in August 2019 at a school board meeting Theresa Pringle, a mother of a Shabazz student, described the escalating violence that, she said, puts her son in “imminent danger.” The following month “three students attacked a young man at a nearby bus stop,” ending up with the boy in the hospital, and  “students fought or were attacked in stairwells, hallways, and locker rooms, according to incident reports and videos.” One student “flung a laptop at a classmate’s face, sending him to the hospital. On at least two occasions, security guards had to seek medical care.” When pressed at December’s school board meeting to explain his strategy for improving Shabazz (which he refuses to close) León pointed to a plan to train students to provide peer-to-peer counseling.

Then again, León’s mendacity is not a new feature. Two years ago he tried to get the State Department of Education to close four public charter schools by distorting facts, misconstruing data, and placing parent preference on the back burner. At the time the NJ Children’s Foundation called his accusations “misleading,”  “inaccurate,” and filled with “factual misstatements” and  “boilerplate, conclusory claims about charter schools with any evidence whatsoever.”  Even the charter-unfriendly Murphy Administration agreed, refusing to close these four popular schools.

Yet that incident hasn’t deterred León from broadcasting falsehoods that, in the end, harm Newark families by conning them into enrolling their children in dysfunctional, under-performing schools plagued by violent and strife.

Educational fraud or a tin-eared marketing attempt? You choose.




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1 Comment

  • Denise Cole, January 13, 2022 @ 9:36 am Reply

    This requires Community leaders and elected officials to join together to come up with solutions for not only Malcolm X Shabazz but what about the analysis of Westside High School and the fights that occurred there daily and at the Newark New Jersey Charter Schools daily.That are not high lighted .
    Yet ,I speak with Parents and Community that complain about the fighting, the conflicts and the lack thereof of adults in the building , enough teachers for classrooms, enough social workers, psychiatrist, psychologist, and Mental Health Resources with mental health professionals.
    Resources that train every staff member in a school building every administrator and a school building every ministrator at the Board of Education in Newark New Jersey and the superintendent on the triggers to look for when a student parent or adult they come in contact with the school that made me referral to a healthcare professional a mental health professional or simply guidance Financial resources.
    The illusion of inclusion a parent teacher student and Community voice in both the Charter School District and the traditional public school system bus stop.
    They need to pay more attention to their oath that they took to sit in elected positions and they need to pay more attention to their job descriptions.
    To quote Martin Luther King we must become “maladjusted to deal with Injustice” and this is the time to start .
    He also stated Martin Luther King Injustice anywhere is” a threat to Justice everywhere” So to chalkbeat and No Education please report more accurately on the issues of violence in the great city of Newark New Jersey and in its outstanding public school system.
    We must be solution-oriented and Report fairly and accurately on the two different school systems in the great city of Newark New Jersey.

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