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Schooled: Mark Zuckerberg's $100 Million Bid to Transform Public Education in Newark, NJ; Salam Neighbor: Life in The Za'atari Refugee Camp

On Tuesday, September 20th, we went back to the City Club for a program in which Ms. Dale Russakoff, a 28-year veteran reporter for the "Washington Post" gave a presentation titled "Schooled: Mark Zuckerberg's $100 Million Bid to Transform Public Education in Newark, NJ."

It all started in 2010 when Mr. Zuckerberg, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Newark Mayor Cory Booker (now a U.S. Senator) appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show to announce a plan calling for education in Newark to be overhauled in five years via a $100 million grant by Mr. Zuckerberg. The three men believed that not only would they be able to "tranform" education in Newark but what they did would be an example for the rest of the United States in terms of school reform. No doubt this would be a challenge, in fact this proposition came at a time when the schools in Newark were performing miserably and under state control.

Ms. Russakoff transported herself to Newark to cover these happenings from start to finish. She then documented her findings in a book titled " The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools" which was for sale that day at the City Club.

As far as the end results of the Newark experiment, Ms. Russakoff believed that some good did come out of it such as greater accountability for educators and the formation of some very good nonprofit charter schools but, unfortunately, it was not the metamorphosis that its instigators hoped it would be. The big reason for this was that the project was conceived and operated almost entirely by outsiders who were working from the top down instead of from the bottom up. Acccordingly, very few educators, school administrators, parents and students had any input in the plan; in fact, many felt threatened by it.

Moreover, the planners (who generally came from well-to-do backgrounds) really didn't understand the how the affects of poverty in a student's life away from the classroom could affect his/her performance in the classroom.

We asked Ms. Russakoff about if conditions were improved for immigrant/refugee ESL students and she replied that they wound up in the "special needs" category and there was very little consistency in terms of what these students were promised, what they needed, and what they were given.

She said that in her book (which we haven't read but we really should) she offered six principles for future reform. Two of these were investment must be for the long-term instead a five-year wunderkind and the people most affected by the proposed changes must be engaged at all levels.

Ms. Russakoff does believe, though, that more money for public education is needed and can really help to change things in a positive manner if spent wisely. She talked for a moment about how a charter school in Newark created a position called "Dean of Student and Family Engagement" whose job was to guide families through troublesome experiences/times (i.e. incidents of domestic violence) in such a way that the disruption of the education of the children be kept to a minimum along with the psychological trauma.

What's more, Ms. Russakoff said that several of the key players in the Newark experiment have acknowledged its failings and have learned from them so  future school reform endeavors might avoid a lot of the drawback experienced by Newark.

Prior to her presentation, Ms. Russakoff was introduced by U.S. District Court Judge Dan A. Polster who conducted the naturalization ceremony at One World Day. We noticed that this City Club program attracted many educators and school officials such as Lorain City Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeffrey Graham, Mr. Bobby Jordan, the President of the Board of Education for Richmond Heights, and Mr. Dennis Allen, the Executive Director of the Greater Cleveland School Superintendents Association.

We shared a table with Mr. Matthew Krivak, the Assistant Principal of Fairview Park Elementary School, and Ms. Delores L. McCollum, a retired teacher who taught for 31.5 years in Cleveland. Ms. McCollum said that she had watched the "Oprah" show when Governor Christie, Mayor Booker, and Mr. Zuckerberg made their announcement and, based on her many of years of experience in the educational system, had serious doubts about this project from the beginning that proved to be well-founded.

As for Ms. Russakoff, she said that one of her next projects would be an article concerning undocumented college students. Of course we talked to her afterwards and told her about Ms. Margaret W. Wong and her years of experience helping immigrants. We then gave Ms. Russakoff our contact information and told her to contact us if she would like input for her article which we think will be very important.

Tuesday night we went to a screening of the documentary film "Salam Neighbor" about life in the Za'atari Refugee Camp in Jordan for Syrian refugees.

This event was hosted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), US Together (which provides assistance/services to refugees), and Carry the Future.

We were unfamiliar before this evening about "Carry the Future" so we talked about it with its representative, Ms. Heather Tsavaris. We learned that it was established about a year ago by Ms. Cristal Munoz-Lego Thetis, a woman in Glendale, CA who was very concerned about the plight of refugees fleeing Turkey and escaping to Greece. She decided to concentrate on providing baby carriers to refugee women and in just a year's time, with the help of many volunteers from around the world, 13,000 carriers have been distributed.

Prior to the start of the film, we were served excellent Middle Eastern cuisine from Kan Zaman by Ms. Nusaiba Chowdhury who is a consistent volunteer with US Together.

The film itself was introduced by Ms. Danielle Drake, Community Relations Manager of US Together, who told us that "Salam Neighbor" was being screened as part of National Welcoming Week which, according to its website, brings "together immigrants and U.S. born residents in a spirit of unity to raise awareness of the benefits of welcoming everyone-including new Americans."

Other local events that have been planned are a Student Art Exhibit on Wednesday at Thomas Jefferson Newcomers Academy and a screening of mini-documentaries about local refugees at the Breen Center for the Arts on Thursday.

Then we watched the film which was quite moving. It told how of two American filmmakers, Mr. Chris Temple and Mr. Zach Ingrasci, who spent a month at the Za'atari Refugee Camp interviewing Syrian refugees and observing how life goes both in the camp and in the nearby village where many refugees live also. All told, the camp is 2.5 miles by 1.5 miles and 85,000 people live there. There are schools in the camp but only half of the children attend them; many stay away due to the traumatic memories of the schools back in Syria which were destroyed. For such children, there is counseling at the Save the Children Center as well as for women at the IRC Women's Center.

Outside of the camp, the employment situation is bleak but we were impressed by the fact that the Syrians within the camp have started 3,000 small businesses making use of whatever resources available. As one camp official observed, "we were building a camp and they were building a city."

This was a sharp contrast to what we had heard about at our previous event that day at the City Club where the Zuckerberg/Christie/Booker experiment with the Newark Schools was foiled because they tried to work from the top down. In this case, the refugees at Za'atari were working from the ground up and doing surprisingly well under the circumstances.

This is not to say that things are great at the Za'atari Refugee Camp because they are not. Living conditions are often quite squalid but the refugees are very grateful to be alive and make the most out of any opportunity given to them.

Afterwards, Ms. Drake outlined the refugee resettlement process and our friend Mr. M. Isam Zaiem gave a brief overview of the political conditions in the Middle East that brought about the war in Syria and thus the refugee situation.

Mr. Zaiem also translated for Mr. Ammar Hwanh, a refugee recently arrived in Cleveland with his family who just loves it here and is very grateful for the kindness that they have received. In fact, on a scale of 1 to 10 Mr. Hwanh gives Cleveland an across the board 10!


Michael Patterson 

Community Liaison,

Margaret W. Wong & Assoc. Co., LLC

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