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Newark education organizer Johnnie Lattner fought to empower parents

Johnnie Lattner in January
Courtesy of Johnnie Lattner; Samuel Park/Chalkbeat

Johnnie Lattner, who died last week, was a respected Newark education advocate with a gift for empowering parents.

“He made me aware of parent power,” said Yolanda Johnson, a Newark parent and advocate who worked closely with Lattner, “that I have a voice and I’m supposed to be sitting at the table.”

On Tuesday, the Newark school board issued a proclamation honoring Lattner and his commitment to Newark families. It said that Lattner’s life reflected his favorite saying: “Let your work speak for itself.”

“There are people who you feel like will always be around fighting for our students,” said board member Yambeli Gomez, “and he was one of those people.”

Lattner also supported Chalkbeat as a member of our Reader Advisory Board, which provides feedback on our coverage and highlights important issues in the communities we serve.

Originally from North Carolina, Lattner moved to Newark more than a decade ago. Once there, he devoted his life to fighting for the city’s public schools and demanding that families have a say in decisions that affect them.

“Parents and students should drive the school,” Lattner told Chalkbeat earlier this year. “The challenge is that we as a community have not taken the time to educate parents about just how powerful they are.”

For Lattner, the goal was less to advocate on behalf of parents than to teach them how to advocate for themselves.

“That was Johnnie’s mission,” Johnson said, training parents “how to organize, how to agitate, and how to win victories.”

In his drive to organize parents, Lattner co-founded Parents Unified for Local School Education, or PULSE. With that group and the Journey for Justice Alliance, he helped file a civil rights complaint alleging that an overhaul of the Newark school district that shuttered more than a dozen schools had violated the rights of Black students and those with disabilities. The complaints prompted a federal investigation that ended when the district agreed to take several corrective actions.

Lattner also fought for school crossing guards to be rehired. He pushed for “community schools” that provide social services along with academics. And he ran for a seat on the city school board. While his bid was unsuccessful, he used his campaign to elevate issues that matter to the community.

“I can’t imagine education advocacy in Newark without Johnnie,” said Kaleena Berryman, executive director of the Abbott Leadership Institute, which provides advocacy training to Newark parents and students. “His voice [was] always reminding us to keep it about the children.”

Lattner joined the long, community-led crusade to end the state takeover of Newark schools. Even after the city’s elected school board regained provisional control of the district in 2018, Lattner continued to demand that Newark families play a role in policymaking.

“He didn’t believe in the smoke-and-mirrors type of community engagement efforts that we often encounter from people in power in the City of Newark,” said Roberto Cabañas, field director for NJ Communities United, in a statement. “Johnnie would call those efforts the ‘illusion of inclusion,’ and rightfully so.”

A vigil for Lattner will be held at 4 p.m. Wednesday outside his house at 60 Mount Pleasant Ave. in Newark. On Thursday, a memorial service will be held from 2-4 p.m. at the Watson Mortuary Service funeral home at 26 Gifford Ave. in Jersey City. Afterwards, a reception will take place from 3:30-6:30 p.m. at Belmont Runyon Community School in Newark.

The New Jersey Children’s Alliance created a fund to help Lattner’s family cover the cost of the funeral. You can contribute here.

“Our community is going to miss Johnnie deeply,” Cabañas said, but takes comfort in knowing he “joined our ancestors who have fought the good fight in the streets.”

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