[Update: Okay, that didn't take long. According to a piece posted on NJ.com within the last hour, Anderson has met with the student group occupying her office
"This morning, Superintendent Anderson met with the group of students
who have been demonstrating since Tuesday and listened to their
concerns," district spokeswoman Brittany Chord Parmley said in a
"The conversation was productive, and we see this as a promising step
towards an ongoing constructive dialogue where both sides are heard and
valuable learning time is not compromised."
So skip the following, or just read it with the knowledge Cami is, according to her office, no longer AWOL. It just took her four days. Four days.]
As the week winds down, the handful of students from the Newark Students Union still occupies the offices of Superintendent Cami Anderson, while the rest of us watch and follow along from, well, all across the country. The whole world, or at least a representative sample of it, really is watching.
The support for the students, their resolve and dedication-- these are all impressive. Some of these stories are so very 21st century-- one of my readers wrote to say that she ordered the students a pizza.
I contacted them through their email, firstname.lastname@example.org and I ordered from Tony's Pizza (973) 821-4723 and had it sent to 2 Cedar Street 8th floor.
They later sent her a picture of the empty box with "thanks" written on it. Meanwhile, you can find numerous updates from them on youtube (search "newark students union") or you can follow them on their facebook page.
As striking as the students' continued devotion the face of pressure and attention and what I can only assume is a huge amount of boredom, I am even more struck by the absolute silence of Anderson and her aides.
They had a visit on Tuesday, and a district spokesperson offered press this:
"Despite our best efforts to work together, they have repeatedly ignored
district requests to meet and engage in a constructive dialogue,"
district spokeswoman Brittany Chord Parmley said in a statement Tuesday.
"While we appreciate their passion, this is not the appropriate forum
to engage in productive conversation."
That single paragraph has run repeatedly in every story I've read since Tuesday, presumably because that's the last thing anybody from Anderson's office has had to say, and I find it kind of bizarre.
Some activists stage a sit-in in your office and take to the internet to broadcast their message. Why would your most immediate response be to go hide? Say nothing?
What possible message could Anderson hope to convey here? We don't bother to talk to students or residents of Newark? Fewer than a dozen remarkably well-behaved teens are just to scary to go face? No big deal because I never use my office for anything, anyway? Talking to people is hard and I'd rather not? Children scare me? Black folks scare me? I am so out of my depth that I am simply frozen into inaction?
There's no possible way to read Anderson's silence and non-appearance in any positive light. I've seen lots of school administrators follow an approach of "Do nothing and hope it goes away," and it never works. Never! And it has been especially not working in Newark. If you don't listen to people when they speak, they will simply keep raising their voices until they think they have been heard, and the Newark Students Union has been demonstrating that principle in action for over a year! It would make more sense to expect them to be swept away on the backs of singing unicorns than to hold onto the hope that they'll just go away. All the way from western Pennsylvania I can see that-- surely it's evident right there in Newark.
The silent disappearance is, first and foremost, a leadership fail. Stuff happens, by the hands of humans, God, or just accident, and what a leader says is, "I didn't ask for this stuff, but it's mine and I'm responsible for it, and so I have to step up." But Anderson, who seems to have a history of flying from any possible confrontation or problem, is not demonstrating that quality.
Look, even from out here I can see that this is not just a group of plucky kids-- there's clearly some savvy adult expertise lending a helping hand. But that doesn't change Anderson's responsibility or her position. If this is her district, and she's supposed to be the leader, she needs to climb out from whatever foxhole she's burrowed into and step up. She needs to deal with the people that she is responsible for.
If I were an Anderson backer, I can't imagine how I would defend her at this juncture. Has she shown bravery, rigor, courage, leadership, cool judgment, anything like wisdom? No. What she has shown is the failure of trying to translate a corporate leadership model to public service and education. Corporate bosses can adopt a particular style because they only deal with people who have to listen to them because they're paid to. In public service in general and public education in particular, you have to listen to your people, even when you don't want to, because you are not the boss of them. You can't just make them obey. You have to work with them.
Every day that Anderson fails to step up is one more day of proof that she is not fit for her job. If she wants to say otherwise, she needs to step out, step up, open her mouth, and open her ears.