Shaking Up Weequahic

Half a century ago, Newark’s Weequahic High School was an academically distinguished, mostly Jewish enclave that graduated the novelist Philip Roth and a steady stream of future PhDs. Starting in the 1960s, however, the city’s race riots, white flight, and the rise of drug-dealing gangs transformed the school into just another urban battleground with low morale and a high dropout rate.

Weequahic High School principal Ron Stone is the focus of a new documentary that chronicles the school’s turnaround.
Courtesy of Dominion3.

It’s a familiarly depressing story—except here the tale took a few unexpected turns. In an award-winning documentary, Heart of Stone, Montclair filmmaker Beth Toni Kruvant shows how an alliance between an activist alumni group and a tough, caring principal began to restore some of the school’s former luster. The principal, Ron Stone, “was a visionary who wanted his story told,” says Kruvant, who walked the corridors of the school and the streets of the surrounding neighborhood with Stone.

A former state weight-lifting champion with a scar creasing his cheek, Stone, who took charge in 2001, conveyed a formidable presence, bolstering his seeming fearlessness with a bullet-proof vest. But his great insight, the filmmaker says, was his understanding “that gangs had some value for these kids,” many of whom lacked stable families and other support systems. Through his acceptance, Kruvant says, “he gained the kids’ respect and trust.”

Under Stone, Weequahic High School produced a state-champion football team and became a nonviolent zone where influential gang members brought their grievances to conflict-resolution sessions. Stone served as a “surrogate father,” Kruvant says, tapping gang-bangers’ leadership qualities and encouraging them to explore college options. In Heart of Stone, we see him visiting students at home and even accompanying one to his father’s grave.

Kruvant, 55, has personal ties to her subject. She grew up visiting her grandparents in Weequahic, and her late father was a Weequahic High graduate. “Everybody sort of knows each other from the community,” she says, “like family.” In 2005, she filmed a tour of Philip Roth’s Newark conducted by the Newark Historical Society, and, in 2006, she attended an alumni association fund-raiser where she first met Stone.

The alumni group, which includes older Jewish grads who have mostly left the neighborhood and younger African-American alums, has raised more than $400,000 for college scholarships and school trips, according to cofounder Hal Braff, an attorney and the father of actor Zach Braff. Weequahic alums always gathered enthusiastically for reunions, Braff says. About twelve years ago, “we said, ‘What if we took the energy that people put into the past and applied it to the benefit of people going to the same school, walking through the same halls, who had less opportunity than we?’ ”

With alumni backing, Stone made a difference. “When he first got there,” Kruvant says, “parents were afraid to send their kids to school.” A few years later, “they were knocking down the doors to get in.”

Despite a tragic ending (which we won’t reveal here), Kruvant hopes that Heart of Stone will inspire high school alumni in other cities “to give back—not just talk about the good old days.” The 84-minute film—winner of several awards, including best documentary at the New Jersey International Film Festival—should be out soon on DVD.

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