Beverly L. Hall, dispatched in 1995 to turn around the ailing public schools of Newark, N.J., has announced that she will move to the top schools job in Atlanta this summer. Now it’s up to her yet-to-be-named successor to prevent the state-run system she is leaving from heading south as well.
Even Ms. Hall’s admirers agree that the job she tackled when the state took over its largest school system is not complete. Because the district still falls far short of state standards in so many areas, most analysts think it unlikely that the state will relinquish control of the 44,000-student district anytime soon.
Still, the outgoing superintendent rejects complaints that she is walking away from unfinished business. In her view, it’s impossible to undo decades of damage in a few years, and now that she’s done the dirty work, it falls to those who come after to build on what she started.
“I really believe that over the past four years, we have laid the groundwork for the Newark public schools to successfully move forward,” Ms. Hall said last week.
Still, some observers worry that Ms. Hall’s departure may cost the district momentum. Jean Anyon, the chairwoman of the education department at Rutgers University’s Newark branch, said that worry prevails among some of the district’s outside partners, including foundations, corporations, and her own university.
“This vacuum that she leaves has people beside themselves on what to do now,” Ms. Anyon said. “It puts everything up in the air.”
Reform Efforts on Tap
The changing of the guard comes as the district is facing challenges that are arguably as profound as any since the takeover began.
Under a court order designed to end a three-decade battle over state funding of city schools, Newark is one of 28 urban districts in New Jersey that are required to adopt plans for comprehensive schoolwide change at all their elementary schools over the next two years.
Meanwhile, state policymakers are considering plans for ending state takeovers that could have long-term ramifications for all three of New Jersey’s state-run districts. October will mark the 10th anniversary of the takeover of Jersey City, and state education officials say they hope the district can soon return to local control.
But before that happens, the state board of education--worried that mismanagement and corruption could return when the state pulls out--intends to craft a plan for managing the transition. A special joint legislative subcommittee is also planning hearings later this year, in advance of possible legislation to guide the release of Jersey City, Paterson, and Newark from state control.
Word that Ms. Hall was moving on brought mixed reactions. Critics of state intervention, including Newark Mayor Sharpe James and the Newark Teachers Union, seized the occasion to denounce the takeover as a failure.
Ms. Hall’s relations with both City Hall and the union have always been rocky, exacerbated by her 1996 decision to lay off nearly 650 cafeteria workers, bus attendants, and other support workers, most of them Newark residents, and redirect the money to student instruction.
“We don’t believe that there’s been any improvements in the Newark public schools,” said Joseph Del Grosso, the president of the 5,000-member affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.
But other assessments were more favorable. “The task remains unfinished, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect on her leadership,” said Republican Assemblyman David W. Wolfe, who heads the education committee in the legislature’s lower house. “A lot of progress has been made.”
Among the accomplishments identified by Ms. Hall and her supporters are the introduction of full-day kindergarten; the placement of staff developers at every elementary school; a push to teach algebra in the 8th grade; improved attendance; refurbished facilities; more autonomy for principals; and the attraction of major corporate and foundation funding to support reform efforts. Allies also credit Ms. Hall with cracking down on underperforming administrators and teachers; the system has seen a turnover of about half its principals since she arrived.
Progress in test scores, however, has generally been modest.
Ms. Hall, 50, a native of Jamaica who served as deputy schools chancellor in New York City before going to Newark, said the challenge to improve achievement will be similar in the 58,000-student Atlanta system, where she is slated to start in July. But both she and Atlanta school officials said they expect her to face less resistance than in Newark, where she served as the emissary of a state government that was regarded by many with hostility and suspicion.
Leo F. Klagholz, who as state education commissioner has been Ms. Hall’s boss and is himself resigning April 1, called Newark “a work in progress.” But he said the departing superintendent had performed commendably under trying circumstances.
“Resistance is built into takeover, and when you use that opportunity for change, then that is compounded,” Mr. Klagholz said last week. “The three traits she lent to this are competence, integrity, and courage, and Atlanta is fortunate to get her.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 03, 1999 edition of Education Week as Hall To Leave Newark for Top Job in Atlanta