NeNewark high students converge on City Hall after walking out of their schools to protest the designation of eight public schools as "turnaround" schools. They then marched to the Peter W. Rodino, Jr. Federal Building before ending their protest with a sit-in on McCarter Highway. Newark, NJ (Robert Sciarrino | NJ Advance Media )


NEWARK — Around noon on Friday, 18-year-old Quinnetta Owens-Culver normally would have attended her Spanish class at Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark.

But at the start of the Memorial Day weekend, Owens-Culver and thousands of other Newark students walked out of their schools at that time, marched on city streets and shut down a major intersection in protest of the school district's policies.

"Most people walk around this world, thinking that they can't get nowhere...but us, as young people, we have a voice. We need to speak for ourselves," Owens-Culver said.

"The message is for saving our schools in Newark," she added.

In what organizers claimed would be the largest student protest in the city's history, students from various high schools marched down Broad Street and assembled outside City Hall. The walkout was organized by the Newark Students Union and NJ Communities United, an advocacy group.

Waving signs with messages like "Save Our Schools" and "We Have Rights," the students cheered from the steps of City Hall as 17-year-old Jose Leonardo called on them to "make some noise."

"Our future should not be played with," Leonardo, a junior at Arts High School, shouted to the crowd.

The students then marched down Broad Street and protested in the plaza outside the Peter W. Rodino Federal Office Building. Soon after, they continued down Broad Street, made a left on South Street and then a right on McCarter Highway. 

Thousands of Newark HS students protest turnaround schoolsAfter walking out of their schools to protest the designation of eight public schools as “turnaround” schools Newark high students converged on City Hall. From there they marched to the Peter W. Rodino, Jr. Federal Building before ending their protest with a sit-in on McCarter Highway. Newark, NJ (Video by Robert Sciarrino | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)

The protesters then blocked the intersection at McCarter Highway and Miller Street, which is near the entrance to the New Jersey Turnpike and other major highways.

"We did not come here...to play a game," 18-year-old Kristin Towkaniuk, a senior at Science Park High School and president of the Newark Students Union, told the crowd at the intersection. "We're done playing games with our education."

As the students locked arms, Towkaniuk led the crowd in a chant of "We have a duty to fight. We have a duty to win. We must love and protect one another. We have nothing to lose but our chains."

newark-protestGrace Tyler, a junior at Malcolm X Shabazz High School, addresses the crowd off Newark high students who converge on City Hall after walking out of their schools in protest of the designation of eight public schools as "turnaround" schools. They then marched to the Federal building before ending their protest march with a sit-in on McCarter Highway. Newark, NJ 5/22/15 (Robert Sciarrino | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com) 

Motorists waited in their cars at the intersection for about 20 minutes before the students dispersed shortly before 2 p.m., but a couple of them said they were not upset about the traffic delay.

"I think they're a voice for the community," said Asbury Park resident Francisco Duprey as he sat in his car. "They've got a duty so they're doing it...I just got caught in the middle of it."

Another motorist, Newark resident Cassandra Gold, also said she didn't mind waiting in her car because of the protest.

"I'm not mad. I think it's great," said Gold, whose daughter graduated from University High School. "Democracy is great."

Besides the traffic delays, the protest did not appear to cause many other disruptions in the area. 

However, a group of students had rushed into a Rite Aid at Broad and South streets, and there was a police presence at the store afterwards. Asked about potential looting at the business, Newark police spokesman Sgt. Ronald Glover said there were no confirmed reports of looting.

The student walkout marks the latest protest against Superintendent Cami Anderson and the district's plans to designate eight schools as "turnaround" schools next school year.

As part of the turnaround program, teachers are asked to sign agreements that may require them to work for a longer school day, go through two additional weeks of professional development in the summer and work on multiple Saturdays.

Under the teacher's contract, which expires next month, the district is allowed to name up to ten schools as turnarounds each year. In exchange for the extra time, teachers are paid an additional stipend of $3,000 per year.

In a statement about the protest, Newark Public Schools spokeswoman Brittany Parmley criticized the walkout for disrupting the school day, and indicated that the district remains committed to the turnaround initiatives.

"While the District supports our students' right to express their opinions and concerns, we cannot support these actions when they disrupt the regular instructional day," Parmley said in the statement. "The District remains committed to broadening opportunities for Newark's students through expanded learning time and through creating additional professional development opportunities for teachers."

The eight schools designated for the turnaround program include East Side High School, Weequahic High School, Ivy Hill Elementary School, McKinley Elementary School, Hawthorne Elementary School, George Washington Carver Elementary School, Elliot Elementary School, and Miller Elementary School.

But some East Side High School students at Friday's protest criticized the turnaround designation as being unnecessary.

"It's already turned around, so we don't need it," said East Side sophomore Jayni Diaz, 17.

Fellow East Side sophomore Yankhari Velecela, 16, added, "We're not going to stop until we get what we want."

"We want our school to stay the way it is, 'cause it's perfect the way it is," Velecela added. "We're fine the way we are."