Published Online: September 4, 2014

Newark superintendent urges parents not to boycott

The superintendent of schools in New Jersey's largest district is defending the changes she is trying to implement and discouraging families from participating in a planned boycott of Thursday's opening of the school year.

Cami Anderson, appointed by the state to run Newark's schools, told The Associated Press in an interview that missing class hurts students. She said she will find other ways to hear concerns from parents over changes in the way students are enrolled and other educational issues.

Her remarks came as some parents planned to open Freedom Schools and hold their children out of classes in the public school system to protest the direction of the district and issues with a new enrollment system. It is unclear how many students may boycott, or for how long.

Anderson said: "This is not a time to let politics get in the way of kids getting to school and getting to work."

At issue is the One Newark plan, Anderson's effort to overhaul a school system in which test scores remain low despite nearly 20 years of state control.

Her plan relies heavily on taxpayer-funded charter schools as part of achieving the goal of having all the city's schools be considered excellent. She said that only 20 of the 100 publicly funded schools now qualify as even good. But she also said the district has made progress, pointing to rising high school graduation rates and high school test passage rates, as well as an increase in enrollment this year.

A key change for the new school year is the new enrollment system. Gone is a system in which students attend their neighborhood schools. Instead, parents are now being asked to give their top choices among charter and traditional public schools, and then children are matched. The idea is that with a universal enrollment system it will be simpler for families and the district can try to make sure low-income and other disadvantaged students are represented in all schools.

The district is implementing a new transportation system to get students to sometimes far-flung schools.

Newark's schools have become a flashpoint in a national debate over how to restore urban schools.

Some critics of charter schools see them as syphoning off needed money and the best students from traditional schools, sometimes for the benefit of for-profit management firms.

In Newark, the fate of education has received attention.

In 2010, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg pledged $100 million to help public education in the city, a gift arranged by then-Mayor Cory Booker and Gov. Chris Christie and announced on Oprah Winfrey's talk show. Some of the efforts from his grant have a role in the One Newark plan.

In this year's mayoral election, both candidates called for a return to local control for the schools. The winner, Ras Baraka, who took office in July, is a former high school principal who has been critical of the One Newark plan.

And in July, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights began investigating whether the One Newark plan discriminates against black students. The probe came in response to a complaint filed in May against the plan, saying that black students make up just half of the district's pupils but nearly nine-tenths of those who will switch schools under the new plan.

The dispute grew last week, when the district opened a one-stop enrollment office. More parents showed up than expected and hundreds were turned away in the first day. A state senator held a hearing Tuesday during which parents railed against the changes.

Acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe said Wednesday that the problems were addressed quickly and some parents might be confusing the issues that normally come with the start of the school year with One Newark-specific problems.

Hespe said Anderson's plans still have the support of the Republican governor's administration.

"What the superintendent is doing is absolutely necessary and crucial," he told The Associated Press.


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