Back at Lakewood High School, Pastor Wilson hangs his head as public school parents shuffle out of the canceled board meeting. It’s dispiriting, he says, but moments like these reinforce his reasons for creating U.N.I.T.E.
“Years ago, it occurred to me that we had to come together as a community to see that the children in the public schools are receiving the education they deserve,” says Wilson, a 1976 graduate of Lakewood High. “When a Caucasian child misses out on an education, he still has a chance to make it because of his network,” adds Wilson. “When African-American and Latino children don’t get educated, they end up in the newspaper.”
Lakewood’s public education landscape is one of its hottest areas of contention. In the 2012-13 school year, public school enrollment was at 5,166. More recently, a steady flow of Mexican immigrants (driven, in part, by service-industry employment opportunities) has helped bump enrollment up to about 6,000, but it’s still a fraction of the nearly 30,000 Orthodox children now attending the private learning institutions throughout town.
The public school population reflects the district’s economic struggles. District-wide, 74 percent of Lakewood’s public-school students are eligible under federal guidelines for free or reduced lunch. That’s more than twice the state average of 35 percent. To top it off, Lakewood’s school district faces a $12 million budget gap, increasingly crowded classrooms and the looming threat of teacher layoffs.
Lakewood High is among the worst-performing schools on New Jersey Monthly’s 2016 ranking, placing at number 322 out of 337 public high schools on the list.
“When I first started teaching here, I was told by colleagues, ‘Honey, you need to get out, because this district won’t be here in 10 years,’” says Cara Leach, a special-ed teacher at Lakewood’s Ella G. Clarke Elementary School. She is now in her 12th year in the district. “I don’t think it’s going to disappear completely, but I don’t know if all eight schools will remain forever.”
Tensions peaked last summer when the school district was forced to wrestle with a busing crisis that threatened to drive an even deeper wedge between the Orthodox community and the rest of Lakewood.
State law requires school districts to bus elementary school children who live farther than two miles from their school—whether public or private—and middle/high school students who live 2.5 miles away. Students who live closer than that are eligible for what is called courtesy busing, the cost of which is shouldered by local school districts. But courtesy busing in Lakewood has become financially unsustainable and was to be axed this fall, disproportionately impacting the town’s Orthodox students.
According to Rabbi Avi Schnall, director of the New Jersey office of Agudath Israel of America, a nonprofit that advocates for civil and religious rights in the Jewish community, the loss of courtesy busing would have meant that nearly 7,000 private school students and 3,000 public school students would have had to walk. And that, he says, was unacceptable.
“When you have 10,000 children left without a way to get to school, you’ve got a problem,” says Schnall, whose organization lobbied tirelessly for a legislative solution to the busing quandary. “You want those children walking two miles through streets that see hundreds of cars every day?”
In August, Governor Chris Christie signed legislation sponsored by Senator Singer that provides state aid to Lakewood for courtesy busing. The pilot program, which was rolled out this fall, gives the district $2.4 million annually through 2019.
“I appreciate the unique transportation challenges that confront Lakewood, where the vast majority of students attend non-public schools,” Christie said in a statement at the bill signing. “But for a robust courtesy busing program, many of these students would have to cross dangerous and crowded intersections to get to and from school.”
Schnall is pleased with the temporary solution, but he says the state’s school-funding formula remains problematic.
This is a common concern within Lakewood’s Orthodox community. New Jersey’s school-funding formula is based on the number of children attending public schools in a district. More public school students equals more state money. But while private school students in Lakewood vastly outnumber those attending public schools, the financial burden of maintaining public schools does not change, nor does the cost of busing.
“In the eyes of the state there are only 6,000 students in Lakewood,” says Schnall. “The 30,000 non-public school students don’t count. They are invisible.”
Wilson and his allies in the minority community maintain that they are the ones who are invisible. “There used to be an incentive for [the Orthodox] to care and come to the table, but now that they’ve got their busing issue solved, there’s no need to care about us anymore,” says Wilson.
He fears that political action will be increasingly hard to muster given the town’s shifting demographics. According to U.S. census data, Lakewood’s Latino population increased by about 80 percent between 2000 and 2010, to 16,000. During the same period, the town’s African-American population dropped by almost 20 percent to about 5,900.
“We’re on our way out,” says Wilson. “Our community continues to shrink. But even if there are just five students left in the school, we need to make sure those five students get educated correctly.”
One of Wilson’s allies is Alejandra Morales, a Mexican immigrant and public school parent of two sons. Her organization, Voz Latina, advocates for the town’s Latino population. Morales, who has lived in Lakewood for 20 years, says she can “no longer remain silent” about her community’s concerns. A substantial percentage of Lakewood’s Latino population, she notes, is undocumented and doesn’t speak fluent English, which further isolates them from engagement in the public debate.
“Many parents don’t speak English and don’t know where they’re supposed to be, so I help them organize,” says Morales in strained English. “But then you see tonight the meeting is canceled? That’s no respect. Everybody here tonight brings serious complaints, but they don’t care. All the time they show us they don’t care.”
Eric Swain has witnessed the effects of a shrinking, fractured and marginalized African-American community firsthand. Born and raised in Lakewood, Swain, 35, spent his young-adult years in the streets, getting into trouble with the law and watching his friends’ lives spiral into increasingly dangerous territory. After turning his life around, Swain founded a community organization in 2012 called Kevin Inc. The group provides mentoring and wholesome community events for Lakewood’s minority youth, including back-to-school barbecues, dances and weekend parties.
“We want them to know that someone cares, so instead of turning to the wrong things, they have an open window with us,” says Swain, who now lives in nearby Manchester. “I’ve been on the streets. I know what that world is like. And I don’t want them turning there too.”
Crime in Lakewood is an ongoing concern. According to the FBI’s most recent nationwide report, there were 167 violent crimes in Lakewood in 2014, an 80 percent increase over the 93 incidents reported the prior year. Robberies nearly doubled, and aggravated assaults rose from 52 to 97. According to the report, Lakewood saw more incidents of violent crime in 2014 than any other municipality in Ocean County.
One of the reasons, says Swain, is that Lakewood’s African-American and Latino youth lack positive local role models. What’s more, Swain says, black and brown residents “simply feel left out.”
“This isn’t about violence or hatred or being anti-Semitic,” says Swain. “It’s about being a voice to bring attention to what’s going on right now. Because everything here is one-sided. The council, the schools. And it’s not fair.”
Ultimately, says Aaron Kotler, the difficulties facing Lakewood are not unlike the struggles countless American towns experience during periods of growth. Old ways are replaced by new ones, and municipal identities are never eternally fixed. But when it happens quickly, he says, the complications are more pronounced.
“Everyone has a right to voice concern— even our fiercest critics,” says Kotler. “Ultimately, Lakewood is a success. We tend to forget that because we want everything to be perfect. But life doesn’t work that way.”
Nick DiUlio is South Jersey bureau chief for New Jersey Monthly.