Newark Schools' Journey to Local Control Begins
Christopher Cerf chatted with parents and took photos in his first school board meeting since being tapped as superintendent for the long-troubled district here, but questions remain as to whether he will swiftly and ably steer the city's public schools back to local control after 20 years under state authority.
Gone was the rancorous atmosphere that had come to dominate school board meetings during the rocky tenure of Cerf's predecessor, Cami Anderson, who stepped down in early July. But the new superintendent's first formal outing late last month before about 200 residents, parents, students, and teachers was by no means a love-fest.
A former state education commissioner in New Jersey who officially got the Newark job in July, Cerf acknowledged that fact during a presentation laying out his vision for the district.
He was interrupted by audience members who disagreed with his data analysis showing that the majority of kindergartners' parents who participated in the district's controversial One Newark plan chose schools outside their neighborhoods, and that no child had been placed into a charter school unless that was the parent's choice. A small group of student protestors with the Newark Students Union covered their mouths with stickers with the words "state control" written on it, a reference to the continued state presence in the district, and held up signs that declared "Classrooms spark revolutions" and "Our schools will not be privatized."
And the advisory school board's first official order of business was to pass a resolution calling for the immediate end of One Newark.
'One Newark' Plan Persists
The One Newark plan, which Anderson unveiled in December 2013 as part of her strategy to create 100 "excellent schools," included relocating some schools and replacing the leadership in others. A central component of the strategy, a universal enrollment system for both regular and charter schools, was stridently opposed by some parents and community activists who contended that it prioritized charters over neighborhood schools, separated siblings, and, in some cases, forced young students to travel long distances. Discontent spawned protests, sit-ins, and a federal civil rights complaint. Supporters, on the other hand, acknowledged that there were problems with how the plan was rolled out, but said that the merits had been drowned out by misinformation.
Cerf is likely to be the last state-appointed superintendent of New Jersey's largest district, which the state took over in 1995 because of poor academic performance, mismanagement, crumbling facilities, and political patronage. Gov. Chris Christie recommended Cerf as the best person to lay the groundwork to return the district to local governance.
Cerf was New Jersey's state education commissioner from 2011 to 2014 before leaving to join Amplify, News Corp's education division that is now up for sale. The state Board of Education narrowly confirmed him as Newark's chief with a 6-4 vote in July, with only Christie appointees voting for him.
At the same time, a nine-member Newark Educational Success Board—made up of the superintendent and other community members—is working to draw a road map that will help guide the district toward local governance. That board is expected to seek community input and provide its recommendations by next spring. With so much at stake, Cerf is being watched closely, with skepticism and guarded optimism.
Aware of that scrutiny, Cerf told the school board and members of the public at the meeting that he was "unalterably, authentically, and completely committed" to local control. He said that he wants to give parents good public school options, regardless of whether those choices are at traditional, charter, or magnet schools. But he also emphasized that he had no plans to upend the current balance of traditional schools and charters and that the district will continue to consist primarily of regular public schools.
The district's nearly $1 billion budget has a remaining deficit of between $15 million to $20 million, and Cerf told the audience that he was working to close the gap without mass layoffs and with as little impact as possible on classrooms. Some cuts have already been made in the central office; other savings came from reducing the district's excess educator pool.
But he acknowledged that schools will feel some pinch from reductions that must be made. Last week, Cerf announced that $750,000 from the Foundation for Newark's Future would be given to schools to help buy supplies and other necessities that are not covered in their budgets, the Associated Press reported. Those funds are coming from what remains of a $100 million gift that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg bestowed on the city's schools in 2010 with the goal of radically transforming the district into a national model of urban education reform, an ambition largely viewed as having fallen short.
Cerf pledged to put a premium on "access, openness, and transparency."
"I think it's important that we all commit to and pledge ourselves to civility, and respect, and to serious engagement," Cerf said in an interview. "Part of it is, frankly, children are watching this process unfold. And we all, whether we like it or not, are modeling a little bit."
He also noted that empowering principals to make more decisions at their schools and to provide better supports and strategies to their teachers to improve instruction were key parts of his school improvement vision.
Relationship With Local Board
Such overtures have gained him some positive nods, in both traditional and charter circles. He attended the school board's retreat last month, and spent nearly an hour with the board members, reviewing plans and providing them with a snapshot of his vision. He also agreed to drop the word "advisory" from the school board's official name, a small measure, he acknowledged, but one he hopes will help build trust and bolster his commitment to listen, restore civility, and treat people with dignity, he said.
Cerf has also promised to attend every school board meeting, an expected requirement of any superintendent, but one that has deeper resonance in Newark. Anderson, who had been subjected to some personal attacks, did not attend board meetings for nearly a year before she resigned.
"He has been open to listening to any comments and suggestions that the board may have," said Ariagna Perello, the school board president.
The board remains focused on taking the reins, and members were taking Cerf at his word that he was committed to helping the district get to that point, Perello said. School board members, who are elected by residents, have been preparing to lead the district and have been taking courses through the New Jersey School Boards Association in governance, ethics, and special education issues.
Mashea Ashton, the chief executive officer of the Newark Charter School Fund, said that so far she likes what she is hearing from Cerf, including his commitment to expanding high-quality schools for all students and ensuring true equity for students regardless of where they attend school.
Cerf was the state education commissioner when Anderson was selected to run Newark's schools. The two administrators worked under former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, a connection that has given some locals pause.
John Abeigon, the president of the Newark Teachers Union, said the new superintendent was "philosophically and morally the same as Cami Anderson" in his approach to school reform. Cerf may have "a more receptive personality, but that doesn't make him any different," he said.
Abeigon said he was waiting to see how Cerf responds to the union's request to do away with or modify the district's current teacher-evaluation framework and use a model that is more in line with what other districts in the state use.
Under the state's own evaluation process, Abeigon said, the state had failed to measurably improve the district's performance, and he gives the state a grade of F-plus.
The district's evaluation results this year are evidence that the state has not gotten the job done, he said.
With rising evaluation scores last year, Newark's school board was given more responsibilities over financial matters. However, this year's evaluation shows the district slipping in three key areas and falling under the required 80 percent mark the state uses as a satisfactory measure for meeting benchmarks. (The district produced its best results in recent years in 2011, exceeding 80 percent in four of five areas of the state's evaluation.)
The annual evaluation is also the measure the state uses to determine local school governance. The district has until Oct. 1 to submit its improvement plans to the state, and many, including Mayor Ras Baraka, have said that focusing on improving the district's evaluation scores was one of the most important things the school board could do right now.
Nenseh Koneh, a senior at Science Park High School, a magnet school, protested with fellow members of the Newark Students Union. She said her main objective was to stress the importance of local control. While she took issue with Cerf's assertion that students were not enrolled in charter schools unless they chose them, she said it was not difficult to believe that parents would opt for charters given the sorry state of some neighborhood schools.
"Not only have they been closed," she said of some neighborhood schools, "but they are also grossly underfunded ... charter schools and local public schools are not on the same level. Who would choose a crumbling school over a shiny, new charter school?"
Kyeatta Hendricks, a parent who spoke to Cerf at the meeting, said she appreciated what she heard from the superintendent, but she has more questions. "I am skeptical about everything, and everybody needs to be skeptical," she said. "Just because someone is new here, doesn't mean they are going to do the right thing. It doesn't mean that they are going to do the wrong thing."
"Do I have faith?" Hendricks asked. "No. But let's see what happens."
Vol. 35, Issue 03, Pages 1, 15Published in Print: September 9, 2015, as Newark Schools' Journey to Local Control Begins