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Outside Team To Develop Strategy For Newark's Schools

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Under threat of a state takeover, Newark, N.J., officials have engaged some of the nation's top education reformers to overhaul the city's troubled school system.

The Newark school board last week approved Executive Superintendent Eugene C. Campbell's plan to launch what could become one of the most comprehensive urban initiatives in the nation.

The superintendent of New Jersey's largest school district has assembled a team led by Robert S. Peterkin, the director of the urban-superintendents program at Harvard University.

Mr. Peterkin will be joined by Francis Keppel, a former U.S. commissioner of education; the social psychologist Jeff Howard, the founder of the Efficacy Institute; and members of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education at Teachers College at Columbia University.

"Whatever it takes to change the system, I'm prepared to do,'' said Mr. Campbell. "I'm also prepared to resign if we can't do all of this.''

While few specifics of a reform strategy were available last week, Mr. Peterkin said the team will submit to district officials within 60 days a plan to accelerate academic improvement and remove impediments to reform.

Unlike other urban initiatives that have focused on a single set of reforms or have been piloted in a few schools at a time, sponsors said, the plan for Newark is to reconstruct the system on both the academic and business sides and to make changes in all schools.

Mr. Campbell said he would eliminate programs if they were deemed ineffective. He also said he would be willing to cut or shift the workforce--an area in which the state has been particularly critical of the district.

A Systemwide Laboratory

Project officials said once a revitalized system is in place, graduates will be expected to understand calculus, speak two languages, and write a literate 25-page paper.

"What I think is truly unique about Newark is that people will be coming into the system exploring how to link various projects together,'' said Eric J. Cooper, the executive director of the National Urban Alliance.

Because Newark has every imaginable urban problem but a manageably sized student population of 48,000, "It's the perfect education laboratory for looking at systemwide reform,'' Mr. Cooper said.

The announcement of the plan comes on the heels of the release of anemic scores on the state high school proficiency test that juniors took last fall.

Only 34.1 percent of Newark students passed the mathematics portion, 43.5 percent passed the reading part, and 65.3 percent passed the writing section.

Not only did Newark's 11th graders perform poorly compared with the statewide average, they scored well below the average posted by students in the state's other poor, urban districts.

A New Attitude

The action appears to reflect a shift in attitude on the part of district officials.

During the past year, the state education department has moved toward a potential takeover of the district, citing evidence of alleged financial improprieties, inadequate or nonexistent policies, and instructional shortcomings. (See Education Week, June 23, 1993.)

Until recently, Newark officials have responded by attacking the state's portrayal of their schools and emphasizing that the district was addressing its problems. Critics have accused the district in some cases of attempting to impede the state investigation.

Mr. Campbell said last week that although the district had made incremental progress, he was no longer satisfied with the pace of change or the goal of meeting statewide minimum standards.

The superintendent said he hoped to begin implementing the changes by July 1.

By June, however, Commissioner of Education Leo Klagholz is expected to decide whether the state will seize control of the Newark schools, as it has done in Jersey City and Paterson. (See related story, page 24.)

Thomas J. King, who is heading the state investigation, said it was premature to speculate on the impact of the initiative. But he said the lengthy procedure that could lead to a takeover would continue.

"They have had ample opportunity over the years to correct the deficiencies,'' Mr. King said.

While not passing judgment on the reformers or their intentions, Sen. John H. Ewing, the chairman of the Senate education committee, said he doubted anything would help until there is a "clean sweep'' of the leadership.

Both Mr. Peterkin and Mr. Cooper said they believed that Newark officials sincerely want their help to reform the system, rather than just to stave off state action.

"It's wrong-headed to get caught up in the argument that this is just another way for Newark to get the state off its back,'' said Mr. Cooper.

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