State-Appointed Newark Chief Vows To Improve Condition of Buildings
With dramatic flair, the new state-appointed schools superintendent of Newark, N.J., toured three rundown schools during her first day on the job last month. Beverly L. Hall pronounced conditions at the schools worse than anything she had encountered in 25 years as a teacher and administrator in the New York City public schools.
"I was really appalled at what I saw," Ms. Hall said.
At one elementary school, she said, the toilets were blackened and there was no toilet paper to be found. The bathroom faucets had no running water.
"The principal told me she had been putting in requests for repairs since 1988," Ms. Hall said.
At a high school, one wall was painted with graffiti so obscene that the new superintendent said she would have painted over it herself if she had worked in the building. "In my view, they were not fit for students," Ms. Hall said of the three schools she visited on July 17.
Thus, the superintendent has made it one of her top priorities that when the new academic year begins on Sept. 11, there will be major physical improvements to Newark's 82 school buildings, including improved safety and the removal of graffiti.
"We have made it priority number one," Ms. Hall, who was the deputy chancellor of the New York City schools until last month, said in an interview. "At the same time, we are doing a thousand other things."
State officials took control of New Jersey's largest school district on July 12, just minutes after the state supreme court voted unanimously to deny Newark officials' request for a delay. The move ended months of legal maneuvering in which Newark administrators and school board members tried to stave off the takeover by seeking a lengthy hearing process.
A 20-member state transition team moved into school board headquarters and immediately dismissed 13 top administrators, including Superintendent Eugene Campbell. Under the state's takeover law, the elected school board was dissolved, although board members are continuing several avenues of appeal.
Reports going back more than a decade have found waste, mismanagement, unsafe building conditions, and abysmal student performance in Newark. The most comprehensive of those was issued about a year ago. The 1,100-page document showed that only one-fifth of high school students who took a 1993 proficiency test were able to pass on the first attempt.
By the time of the takeover, community opposition to the idea had virtually fizzled, and many parents expressed hope that conditions could only improve under state control.
"Originally, a lot of us did not support the state coming in," said Maryam Bey, the parent coordinator for the Essex County Urban League and the mother of a district student. "However, we wanted to get the [local] leadership out. Now, with Dr. Hall, the mood is that parents and the community want to make a real serious change."
Mostly Warm Welcome
Ms. Hall, 47, is under contract to oversee the Newark schools for one year. In New York City, she served as a teacher, principal, superintendent of a community school district, and as the district's number-two administrator since early 1994. Her departure was prompted, in part, by Schools Chancellor Ramon C. Cortines's recent decision to resign.
Besides improving the physical conditions at schools, Ms. Hall said, her other short-term goals are to distribute textbooks that have been sitting in warehouses and to fill teaching vacancies.
She also hopes to act fast to improve professional development and to begin analyzing the instructional practices within the district. Another goal is to use the takeover law's provision allowing for the evaluation of principals and the removal of those who are not doing a good job, regardless of their tenure.
Ms. Hall has, for the most part, received a warm welcome in Newark, except from one ousted board member who questioned her opinion that the schools she visited her first day were in worse condition than any in New York City.
Calling Ms. Hall an "actress," the former board member, Jeffrey Dykes, told The Star-Ledger newspaper in Newark that "New York City's school system is a rat-infested graffiti-land."
Lisa Greene, the president of the parent-teacher association at Hawthorne Avenue Elementary School, said many community residents are apprehensive about the state takeover because of the bitter battle that preceded it and the uncertainty about what will happen.
"There are individuals who are frightened about the takeover," she said. "But I am glad to see the previous administration gone. Parent involvement was not encouraged, it was discouraged."