Principal gave his ‘heart of stone’ to a school
Heart of Stone, Documentary; Director Beth Toni Kruvant; produced by Good Footage, 2009, 84 minutes, $22.00 for home use plus $10.00 shipping. Additional charges for groups and schools
By Gail Feinstein Forman
SAN DIEGO–It was through a great personal coincidence that I became familiar with the documentary, Heart of Stone, a video now making its way through Independent and Jewish film festivals and reviewed quite favorably both in the local and national media.
The narrative centers on the groundbreaking, dedicated work of Ron Stone, Principal of Weequaic High School in Newark, New Jersey from 2003-2007, and his efforts to raise this ghettoized, violent high school – he wears a bullet-proof vest to make his daily rounds-back to its days when it was one of the premier high schools in the country.
Many of Stone’s techniques were controversial, but he successfully enlisted the cooperation and financial support of largely Jewish Weequaic High School Alumni, and under Stone’s watch, a new world of educational opportunities for his high school students began to take shape.
A few weeks ago, my husband forwarded an advertisement for this documentary that had come to him at Mesa College Library for possible purchase for their collection. Because he knew that I had family that graduated Weequaic High, he thought I’d be interested to learn of the video.
Unbeknownst to my husband, immediately before I had read his Email with the advertisement, I had just been meticulously browsing through my mother’s Weequaic High School Yearbook, Class of 1941, something I had never done before.
Taking this coincidence as a “Beshert” that I yet did not understand, I immediately bought the video because of the family connection. In addition to my mother attending the school, her sister, her brother and my two cousins also were alumni, and I had spent almost every weekend of my childhood visiting these relatives in the Weequaic neighborhood.
During the 1930’s through the 1950’s, the Weequaic section of Newark was a heavily Jewish enclave, though it also encompassed a rather diverse ethnic mix, notably Italians and African Americans. At that time, there was little racial tension, and the neighborhood was considered a great place to grow up with top-notch schools, including Weequaic High School.
In that period of time, graduates of Weequaic High School had a reputation for excellence and went on to garner more PhD’s than any other high school in the country.
This was the neighborhood that Philip Roth, Weequaic graduate 1950 grew up in and immortalized in many of his novels. Roth even makes a cameo appearance in the film.
Roth was filmed at a ceremony that designated the house that he grew up in, 385 Leslie Street, an historical Newark landmark. Roth accepted the award graciously and then jokingly refers to the ceremony as “his Stockholm,” in place of his still missing yet hoped for, Nobel Prize
Unfortunately, during the 1960’s, Newark became a smoldering hotbed of racial strife, culminating in the Newark riots of 1967, when the downtown shops, many Jewish owned, were trashed and burned in angry protests.
Jews then moved out to the suburbs and the Weeequaic neighborhood lost its homey veneer.
Weequaic High School also became a victim of this downward turn. Rival gangs, the infamous Crips and Bloods, controlled the immediate streets surrounding the school, resulting in the needless deaths of many teens that attended the school.
Ron Stone was himself a product of the Newark streets. He brought himself out of poverty first, by becoming a sports champion at school and later with education.
He knew the streets, and he knew what had to be done to give the kids what he called “Options.” Stone didn’t just interact with students at school; he went to their homes to try to spur them on.
In one scene, Stone is trying to convince Rayvon, one of his students and gang leaders, to accept a four-year scholarship to Seton Hall University. Because it is so out of Rayvon’s world, it terrifies him, and Stone needed to convince him it was the right thing to do.
The story of Ron Stone as principal is much more than an example of “Tough Love.” In fact, touch love was used when necessary, but also, he just used love, tough or not. He rallied the students to conflict resolution meetings. He respected their ideas and their lives.
And of tremendous importance, in this underfunded ghetto school, Stone rallied the alumni to help him change the school back from disaster to high achievement.
The alumni heard the call and they delivered. Hal Braff, the father of Zach Braff, the film actor, was a Weequaic alumnus and played a pivotal role in establishing the Weequaic High School Alumni Association.
The film shows meetings of the mostly Jewish alumni association talking about their own years at Weequaic High School, the lasting relationships they made, and at times, dealing with anti-Semitism “on the street.” Their conversations lent insight into daily life in the Weequaic neighborhood, one woman commenting that it was so safe she could go outside and get a paper while still in her pajamas.
But the mission at hand for the alumni association was to help foster Weequaic High students towards a successful graduation, often mentioning the responsibility they had of “Tikun Olam,” repairing the world.
The alumni provided scholarships, ran fund-raising events, sent groups of students on tour to Paris and US cities for enrichment.
And it worked.
Nearly every member of the beginning high school class that attended when Ron Stone became principal in 2003 graduated in 2007.
At the graduation ceremony, gang leaders who never imagined they’d live to see the day they would or even could graduate, waved their hands, danced up to the podium and wept openly with joy.
It was Ron Stone’s finest hour-one that, you’d think would go on forever.
But after the main film ends triumphantly in 2007, a black screen appears with written text that was added in 2008. It’s a quiet moment and a shocker to read—one that will pierce even the toughest viewer’s armor.
We learn that Ron Stone died suddenly of a heart attack nine months after the famous graduation. One can’t help thinking that he gave his heart for all these kids, thus the title, Heart of Stone.
His life and work remain his legacy.
This inspirational documentary has garnered many awards such as Best Feature Film at the Philadelphia Film Festival, The Kaiser Permanente Thrive Award, and Best Documentary Film at the New Jersey Film Festival, and Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival.
Learn more by visiting the film’s website.
Forman is a freelance writer based in San Diego