After several years of serious concern, students, educators, parents, and alumni of Newark’s esteemed Weequahic High School are breathing sighs of relief.
The school, which opened in 1933, was once an iconic center of what was Newark’s thriving Jewish community. But in recent years, and now with a predominantly African-American student body, it had been threatened with closing.
That had been the intention of Cami Anderson, whom Gov. Chris Christie appointed as superintendent of Newark Public Schools in 2011, at a time when the state government controlled operations of the system. The state returned operation of the schools to the city government in September, and Anderson resigned in June 2015.
Despite those plans, “we have fought it, and it is not going to happen,” said Marc Tarabour, a member of the class of 1963 who serves as copresident of the Weequahic High School Alumni Association.
“It was the activism of our alumni association that prevented closure from happening,” said Phil Yourish, the retired executive director of the association.
“We had a presence at every single board meeting,” Tarabour added. “Every event that had to do with the Newark public school system, we were there, speaking our minds.”
Alumni were especially concerned after the installation of separate boys’ and girls’ academies in one wing of the school. Then rumors began circulating in 2014 that the academies would replace the high school entirely.
The rumors “cost us dramatically in terms of fund-raising,” Tarabour said. “People have said, ‘Why should I give you money when you are going to close?’”
The alumni association has some 1,900 members.
The school had been showing signs of being in trouble. When Tarabour graduated in 1962, there were 520 students in his class. In 2016 the size of the graduating class was 269 students. In 2017, however, it has risen to 360. Tarabour said the goal is to get the enrollment of the incoming freshman class up to 750.
Optimism set in after the state returned control of Newark’s schools to the city this year. Robert Gregory, Newark’s deputy superintendent for high schools, assured an alumni meeting on Oct. 18 that “the school is on its way to being upgraded,” according to Tarabour.
Lawson said, “I look forward to a Weequahic High School that has outstanding leadership, ample resources, a solid academic program, a caring staff, the full support of the Newark school district, and most important, a learning environment where students can be successful.
“I am very optimistic. The whole climate has turned around.”
Tarabour hopes that a strengthened school will lead to a strengthened alumni association.
“Our job now is to provide the dollars for things like scholarships and band uniforms and batons and championships. Right now, financially, we cannot do things like that,” he told NJJN.
A Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, Tarabour considers himself “a conservative Republican who is a very liberal person when it comes to education and other social issues.”
He said he believes the ability to get an education — “the most important thing anyone needs in this country —was taken away from African-Americans. The Alumni Association is made up of people who care about those kids and want to make a difference.”
He views Weequahic’s current students as “just amazing kids who have nowhere near the same advantages that we as white Jewish kids growing up in the Weequahic section of Newark did. Once you meet them it becomes an obligation to help them.”
The copresident of the alumni association, Karim Arnold of Newark, graduated from Weequahic in 1984. A Muslim, he sees the interfaith and interracial cooperation at Weequahic as a model for how the world should behave.
“There’s so much fighting around the world with Muslims and Jews,” he told The Star-Ledger in 2016. “We have been able to show how people of different faiths, different colors can work together.’’