Guest Voices: Maatie Alcindor on NorthStar Academy

Maatie Alcindor is originally from Cambridge, Massachusetts, but has been a New Jersey resident for the past 16 years.  For the past 15 years, she’s been working in the pharmaceutical industry.  She is the single mother of one 20 year old son and of “Bob da Dog.”  I first encountered Maatie in a local issues discussion group on Facebook, as we live in the same town.  The subject of charter schools had come up, and in her posts in that group, Maatie told some of the story she tells here today.  We have never actually met in person, but I was so moved by her story in the discussion group, that I messaged her to ask if she’d be willing to write her story up for wider distribution via my blog and beyond.  She agreed.  Below is Maatie’s story — as she tells it — about her son’s middle school experience at a NorthStar Academy charter school in Newark, New Jersey (part of the Uncommon Schools charter network):  

We were residents of East Orange, NJ the spring before my only child started the 5th grade.   At the time, my son was attending fourth grade at the East Orange Charter School and we loved it. Unfortunately for us East Orange Charter only went up to the 4th grade. Through the NJ State Education web page I found out that the highly touted North Star Academy (NSA) Charter School in Newark was opening a middle school in North Newark not far from my East Orange home!  Soon after, some friends and I attended the prospective parents meeting for the new North Star Academy Middle School.

And that is where the trouble began. From the very first meeting I knew something was not right. I did not like the way we were spoken to but I thought to myself… give them a chance. The successive meetings did not change my initial uneasy feeling toward the administration. We were given application packets and advised that we the parents had to drop off the completed forms. If not, the application would not be accepted. It was explained to us that if we were serious about our children’s education we would make the time to submit the applications ourselves. No other people would be allowed to deliver the packets for us. Even when parents explained that due to their work schedules it would be a problem to bring in the forms, NSA said no accommodations would be made. Imagine my irritation when I arrived at the downtown Newark location to submit my application and was told to just drop it in a bin (no one was there to confirm the submission). There was no reason to force parents to take time from work to simply drop an envelope in a tray; it was just a test of our commitment to follow the schools rules.

We were told to expect 2-3 hours of homework per night and extensive homework packets during weekends and vacations. I expressed concern that the amount of work seemed a lot for an 11 year old child and left no time for other activities or family time.  It was basically inferred that if I cared about my son’s future I would follow their program or find another school and watch him fail. Rules of conduct while in school were even more concerning. Throughout their day the students would get in trouble for such things as talking in the hallway, missing or incomplete homework, uniform pants not being the right shade of beige and the dreaded “not tracking the speaker with your eyes.” Yes, the children would get in trouble for not looking directly at the teacher during their lesson. Even during lunch there were more opportunities to get detention including talking too loud and talking when the principal entered the lunch room. They were expected to stop talking if the principal walked into the lunch room!!!!! Detention was usually an hour meaning that during the winter months the kids that were let out around 4:30 or 5:00 pm which left them to navigate home in the streets of Newark alone by either walking or public transportation after dark.

Though the Vice Principal came across genuine and caring; I found the Principal to be indifferent to parental concerns. The school’s Parents Council was viewed as a “social group” by the school administration and did not influence school policy in any way.  The school secretary habitually did not answer the office phone and was apathetic to parents’ requests to pass information to our children.  Messages for children about changes in pickups or where they were to go after school were routinely responded with “If I see ‘em I’ll tell ‘em” (a lot of times she didn’t “see ‘em”).   We were expected to trust their every action without question. For example, the 5th grade class trip was to Florida Everglades. When I asked which airline they would be flying with I was repeatedly told to just drop my son off at the school and that he would be traveling to the airport with the group. When I went to the Principal directly and asked for the flight information… his reply was that I was having separation anxiety and that I had all the information that I needed to know. I did not allow my son to go on that trip. The following years the Vice Principal and some of the teachers did their best to keep me informed of trip details.

My feelings for charter schools in general are a little more ambiguous. I hated the North Star model but I think if done right there may be a place for charter schools. North Star’s main issue was lack of engagement with the community. It was a school in the community but not of the community. To be honest it felt very racist though I do not think they thought of themselves as racists. The principal took on the air of an overseer, our children were no longer our own but property of NSA to be raised by their rules of behavior. On several occasions I witnessed the surreal scenes of all white “board members” that would come to visit the school smile as the children would beat the African Style drums to call every one to morning circle. The board members seemed very pleased to watch the call and response exercise as the white Principal walked around to check the uniforms of the school’s all black and Hispanic students. Later I asked the Principal why as American citizens the children didn’t just do the Pledge of Allegiance as in any other school? I was told mockingly, that since we were African Americans, the drums represented our history. I advised him that I went to school with predominantly Irish Americans and we never started the day with Celtic music or Toe Dancing.  With only one black teacher on staff at the time I wondered who gave them their ideas.

Parents and students who questioned the school’s methods were seen as discipline problems and were treated accordingly. The work load was assigned as a way to take up their free time. Parents desperate not to have their children end up in the gang infested neighborhood schools were willing to compromise their authority and hand their kids over to NSA with the promise of college dangled continuously in front of them. Those who went on to the NSA Preparatory High School found more of the same heavy handed tactics as before. Most of the male students left for other schools before making it to 12th grade.

The idea of Charter school was appealing to me. We had such a great experience his fourth grade year at East Orange Charter School and we wanted more.  North Star Academy was a nightmare and a decision I will always regret. In 2009, my son was part of the first eighth grade class to graduate from North Star Academy Middle School. That fall we moved to a different town but his four years at North Star had done its damage.  My son’s freshman year in high school was very hard for him. In spite of the hours upon hours of homework that he endured at North Star Academy he did not have any real study or note taking skills. North Star normally gave them their notes and study sheets but did not allow for any independent thinking.  For several years he had trouble engaging in class due to North Star’s passive learning style of teaching. Where North Star allowed for him to repeatedly take the same test over and over in order for them to record the most acceptable score, he was frustrated by the fact this was not the case at his new school. My son is now in his third year of college and he is on track to graduate with his Master’s Degree in Environmental Science in two years. It is a shame that he thinks so poorly of those middle school years and usually uses an expletive to describe his experience. My feeling is mutual. 



Newark Residents Should Select Their Own Next Superintendent

A group of New Jersey public education supporters crafted this letter to encourage the New Jersey State Board of Education not to rubber stamp Governor-and-Presidential-hopeful Chris Christie’s choice to replace outgoing Newark Superintendent of Schools Cami Anderson. As a believer in the critical importance of local democratic control over our nation’s public schools, I cannot agree more that after 20 years, it is time for the people of Newark to choose their own leaders for their children’s public schools.  Our public schools are intended to prepare our children for the responsibilities and duties of democratic citizenship. How can Newark’s children internalize democratic principles if their parents and community members are told, decade after decade, that the adults of Newark cannot be trusted to democratically govern their children’s schools?

Newark Residents Should Select Their Next Superintendent

We believe that the people of Newark should be able to democratically govern their public schools.  

Fortunately, Mark Biedron, President of NJ’s State Board of Education, seems to agree. Mr. Biedron recently told the Star Ledger that the people of Newark having local control over the school district…is a good thing.” 

On Wednesday, Mr. Biedron will have an opportunity to act on this belief when the State Board votes on whether Chris Cerf should become Newark’s next Superintendent.  

If the State Board approves Mr. Cerf, it will be continuing a 20 year history of disenfranchisement for Newark’s nearly 300,000 residents, who have had no say in this decision.

If the Board rejects Mr. Cerf and instead approves a candidate selected by Newark’s popularly-elected Board of Education, it will be putting Mr. Biedron’s admirable philosophy into practice.

There is plenty of precedent for allowing Newark to select its own superintendent.

Newark, Jersey City, and Paterson are all statecontrolled school districts.  Yet Jersey City’s popularlyelected Board of Education selected its Superintendent, Marcia Lyles.  Paterson’s Superintendent, Dr. Donnie Evans, was selected by a committee that included members of Paterson’s popularly-elected Board of Educationalong with other community leaders.  In contrast, Newark’s popularly-elected Board of Education has had no voice in selecting Mr. Cerf, who was nominated for this position by Governor Christie.

Approving Mr. Cerf is also difficult to justify because Mr. Cerf lacks the qualifications necessary to run New Jersey’s largest school district.  Unlike Jersey City’s and Paterson’s leaders, Mr. Cerf has no prior experience as a superintendent.  

Nor is there a record of success in related public-education positions on which to base Mr. Cerf’s nomination.  In fact, Mr. Cerf’s tenure as New Jersey’s Commissioner of Education was marked by numerous poor decisions regarding Newark, including:

• Appointing and continuing to support Newark’s prior Superintendent, Cami Anderson, whose policies and behaviors generated broad-based rejection and rebellion from Newark residents;
• Improperly giving in to a demand from Ms. Anderson to allow her to retain full control over 28 low-performing schools,” which resulted in New Jersey failing to comply with federal requirements; and 
• Forcibly maintaining State control of Newark’s schools by dramatically lowering the district’s scores on the State’s monitoring system (QSAC) from the scores that Mr. Cerf had given the district less than a year earlier.  

The people of Newark deserve the right to select their next Superintendent.  They also deserve an experienced public education leader with a proven record of success.  Mr. Cerf’s candidacy fails on all these counts.

We encourage Mr. Biedron and the other State Board of Education members to vote no on Mr. Cerf’s nomination and to allow Newark’s popularly-elected Board of Education to nominate the district’s next Superintendent.  

Newark’s residents have been deprived of their right to democratically control their public schools for 20 years.  It is long past time to correct this wrong! 


Rosie Grant, Piscataway, NJ

Parent and nonprofit leader


Michelle Fine, Montclair, NJ

Parent and professor


Judy DeHaven, Red Bank, NJ

Parent and writer


Valerie Trujillo, Jersey City, NJ

Parent and public education advocate


Jacklyn Brown, Manalapan, NJ

Parent and educator


Julia Sass Rubin, Princeton, NJ

Parent and professor


Linda Reid, Paterson, NJ

Parent and nonprofit leader


Melissa Katz, South Brunswick, NJ

Future educator


Bobbie Theivakumaran, Metuchen, NJ

Parent and investment banker


Lisa Winter, Basking Ridge, NJ

Parent, technology manager and former Board of Education member


Marcella Simadiris, Montclair, NJ

Parent and educator


Michelle McFadden-DiNicola, Highland Park, NJ

Parent and public education advocate


Bill Michaelson, Lawrence Township, NJ

Parent and computer scientist


Marie Hughes Corfield, Flemington, NJ

Parent and educator


Rita McClellan, Cherry Hill, NJ

Parent and administrator

Sarah Blaine, Montclair, NJ

Parent, attorney, and blogger


Susan Cauldwell, Spring Lake, NJ

Parent and nonprofit leader


Heidi Maria Brown, Pitman, NJ

Parent and educator


Julie Borst, Allendale, NJ

Parent and special education advocate


Susan Berkey, Howell, NJ

Parent and educator


Darcie Cimarusti, Highland Park, NJ

Parent and Board of Education member


Amnet Ramos, North Plainfield, NJ

Parent and educator


Elana Halberstadt, Montclair, NJ

Parent and writer/artist


Ani McHugh, Delran, NJ

Parent and educator


Jill DeMaio, Monroe, NJ



Tamar Wyschogrod, Morristown, NJ

Parent and journalist


Lauren Freedman, Maplewood, NJ

Parent and public education advocate


Lisa Rodgers, South Brunswick, NJ

Parent and business owner


Laurie Orosz, Montclair, NJ

Parent and public education advocate


Michael Kaminski, Mount Laurel, NJ

Parent and educator


Ronen Kauffman, Union City, NJ

Parent and educator


Frankie Adao, Newark, NJ

Parent and social media specialist


Kathleen Nolan, Princeton, NJ

Parent, researcher and lecturer


Sue Altman, Camden, NJ



Jennifer Cohan, Princeton, NJ

Parent and publicist


Daniel Anderson, Bloomfield, NJ

Parent and Board of Education member


Debbie Baer, Robbinsville, NJ

Parent and educator


Dan Masi, Roxbury Township, NJ

Parent and engineer


Susan Schutt, Ridgewood, NJ

Assistant principal and public education advocate


Karin Szotak, Madison NJ

Parent and business owner


Tiombe Gibson, Deptford, NJ

Parent and educator


Lisa Marcus Levine, Princeton, NJ

Parent and architect


Kristen Carr Jandoli, Haddon, NJ

Parent and public education advocate


Jean Schutt McTavish, Ridgewood, NJ

Parent and high school principal


Virginia Manzari, West Windsor, NJ.

Parent and businesswoman


Stephanie LeGrand, Haddonfield, NJ

Parent and public education advocate


Melanie McDermott, Highland Park, NJ

Parent and sustainability researcher


Nora Hyland, Asbury Park, NJ

Parent and professor


Beth O’Donnell-Fischer, Verona, NJ



Susie Welkovits, Highland Park, NJ

Parent and Borough Council President


Gregory M. Stankiewicz, Princeton, NJ

Parent and nonprofit leader


Margot Embree Fisher, Teaneck, NJ

Parent and former Board of Education member


Stephanie Petriello, Dumont, NJ

Parent, educator and business owner


Laura BeggBernards Township, NJ

Parent and public education advocate


Gary C. Frazier, Camden, NJ

Parent and community activist


Debbie Reyes, Florence Township, NJ



Christine McGoey, Montclair, NJ



Regan Kaiden, Collingswood, NJ

Parent and educator


Moneke Singleton-Ragsdale, Camden, NJ

Parent and administrator


Liz Mulholland, Westfield, NJ 

Parent and former educator


Toby Sanders, Trenton, NJ

Parent, pastor and educator