I'm sure you've heard that Facebook co-founder, Mark Zuckerberg, donated a million bucks to Newark's schools, and maybe you've also heard that Newark mayor, Cory Booker, has raised $40 million (so far) in his attempt to match Zuckerberg's donation.
I've been thinking a lot about this, partially because it's all over the news and my social media feeds, and also because urban education has become interesting to me. Newark high schools ranked poorly on NJ Monthly's Top High Schools for 2010; there are several high schools in Newark and some of them ranked in the 200s; a few ranked in the 300s, and one had the dubious distinction of placing lower (319) than Trenton (317). For perspective, Millburn ranked #1, and Camden ranked at the bottom, at 322.
That urban schools struggle so badly makes me feel a bit ill. I cannot imagine the hell the young people currently enrolled must endure. That we live in Trenton and have a 2-year-old we plan to educate worries me to no end. On the other hand, I really like Cory Booker, and Zuckerberg's donation — while curiously timed to some unseemly news revealed about his delving into Facebook users' profiles and the power that affords him, as well as to soften the blow of how he's portrayed in the movie, The Social Network — is an incredible opportunity for Newark to turn their schools around.
I've been also thinking about this so much because it would be nice if Trenton had the same incredible opportunity. But the reality is, Cory Booker is a friggin' rock star in the realm of mayors: he is a really charismatic, universally appealing, intelligent dude, and he inspires people to make $100 million dollar donations to his city. In contrast, we languished for a generation under a petty little tyrant, Doug Palmer, who set the stage for Trenton's total destruction; and we are currently led by a man, Tony Mack, who may very well be in over his head. I have been trying to give the new guy a bit of room to find his footing in the rubble left by his predecessor, but the truth is, his missteps in his first few months have been massive indeed, and any hope and support I had in me have evaporated. I don't think million- and billionaires are obliged to give their money away; though I think it is an incredibly generous, gracious, rewarding, and community-building thing to do. But there is no way I'd expect any of them to give money to the leadership in Trenton, based alone on the news of the back-and-forth foreclosure of the mayor's personal residence, his inability to make cuts in his own staff and salary (granted, the money the city would save there is a mere drop in the bucket, but the gesture would be hugely symbolic, and offer a clear message that he's on board with trying to fix the city's financial problems). The failure of Trenton school officials to take responsibility for not only the abysmal academic performance of students in their care, but also for the shocking financial abuses that took place right under their noses, pretty much seals the deal that we don't deserve any charity.
It bothers me to sit here on my ass and offer little but criticism about the uninspiring and often pathetic leadership in Trenton, but I firmly believe that calling attention to Trenton's shortcomings will provide some fuel for change. I hope. No one on the outside owes us anything, especially since we haven't been able to take care of ourselves. There are people in this city, some of whom are in brand new positions of leadership, who can and do inspire. It would be nice if at least one of them channels some Cory Booker, because we've got a lot of work to do to turn this place around, and we have to do it ourselves.