School & District Management

Rocky Road Foreseen for Newark Schools Overhaul

By Denisa R. Superville — July 08, 2014 7 min read
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Newark schools Superintendent Cami Anderson has a new, three-year contract in hand, but the road from now to 2017 could be extremely bumpy, with obstacles that include a seething teachers’ union, disgruntled parents, and a new mayor whose political campaign practically centered on opposition to her agenda and calls for her removal.

The new agreement, which pays her $251,500 a year, comes after a brutal spring for Ms. Anderson that featured some parent, student, and union protests against her One Newark plan, a sweeping proposal that created a single enrollment system for all charters and district schools. Under the plan, some public schools will be relocated, others merged, and some restructured. Charter operators will also be allowed to run their schools in district buildings.

In an interview last week, Ms. Anderson appeared undaunted by the recent challenges. She minimized the scale of opposition to One Newark and attributed some of the backlash to misinformation and inaccuracies that were perpetuated during a contentious mayoral campaign.

One Newark aims to create excellent schools for all students, according to the superintendent. It did not add any new charter slots—those allotments were planned before she became superintendent, Ms. Anderson said. It instead put charter operators in neighborhoods where parents were clamoring for charter seats, many students were in failing schools, underenrollment was an issue, and district-run schools served a disproportionate share of special education and poorer students.

“We had to figure out a way to make sure ... we don’t end up being a district that’s phasing out while serving the neediest kids...," Newark schools Superintendent Cami Anderson said.

“We had to figure out a way to make sure that NPS can compete on a level playing field so we don’t end up being a district that’s phasing out while serving the neediest kids...,” Ms. Anderson said. “So the plan is hawkish on quality and on equity, with the real focus on neighborhoods. We want to make sure that we have excellent neighborhood schools, and that’s why we brought all of the great schools to the neighborhoods that were demanding them as opposed to letting those neighborhood schools just dwindle. And we’ve created the conditions for NPS to compete on a level playing field and be part of the solution.”

Part of the district’s goal this summer is to continue a grassroots campaign to communicate the elements of the plan to families, through phone banks and meetings and by knocking on doors.

Ms. Anderson says she remains focused on producing 100 excellent schools in the city, and she will continue working on “Renew” schools, turnaround schools in which staff members are let go and must reapply for their job and which also feature longer school days, social and emotional support for students, and additional professional development for teachers.

Despite calls for her ouster, Ms. Anderson had been vocal about her desire to stay at the helm of the 38,150-student district—the state’s largest and under state control since 1995.

“When I became superintendent three years ago, I made a commitment to the students and families of Newark to create a district with quality educational options for all students and ensure the fiscal stability of Newark public schools for years to come,” Ms. Anderson said in a statement issued upon her contract renewal.

In granting the new contract, David Hespe, the acting state commissioner of education, pointed to Ms. Anderson’s achievements in the district: a 10 percent increase in graduation rates from 2011 to 2014; a new teachers’ contract that includes merit pay; the opening of 10 Renew schools to replace the district’s 12 lowest-performing schools; five new district schools; and the hiring of 50 principals and giving them the autonomy to transform their schools.

‘Doubling Down’ on Activism

The contract renewal did not elicit the same reaction in some circles in Newark as it did in Trenton, the state capital.

Joseph Del Grosso, the president of the Newark Teachers Union, promised more union and community activism against Ms. Anderson. He told Education Week last month that Ms. Anderson could not be an effective superintendent because she had alienated the major stakeholders: teachers, parents, students, and local politicians.

“She has been unwilling to listen to Newark’s community, yet Gov. [Chris] Christie has had her back, saying that, ‘We run the school district in Newark, not them,’ ” Mr. Del Grosso said later. “Her contract renewal may signal a doubling down on her efforts to mass close, mass fire, and mass privatize. But let me be clear: It will also signal a doubling down on union and community activism to stop her disastrous One Newark plan.”

In the earlier interview, Mr. Del Grosso had also assailed the One Newark plan and accused Ms. Anderson of being an advocate for charter schools.

“We want a superintendent that is going to tell us how to make our traditional public schools better and [who is] not a cheerleader for charters, which Ms. Anderson is,” Mr. Del Grosso said.

The teachers’ union leader and state Sen. Ronald Rice, the chairman of the legislature’s Joint Committee on the Public Schools, have asked the state to review the district’s finances along with Ms. Anderson’s relationship with charter operators, including the sale of one Newark school building to a charter operator. Leland Moore, a spokesman for the state attorney general’s office, confirmed that the agency had received Mr. Rice’s letter, but said the department’s policy was to not comment on investigations or requests for them.

Ms. Anderson also said she would not comment on Mr. Rice’s allegations.

Two years ago, Ms. Anderson and the union were partners, working on a teachers’ contract that was lauded as a national model. But the relationship sputtered, and the two sides are mired in grievances the union says violate terms of that agreement. News earlier this year that 1,140 Newark teachers could be fired in the next three years also did not engender goodwill from the union.

While Ms. Anderson has never had an easy time in Newark, tensions escalated beginning with One Newark’s release in December. School board meetings became extremely personal, so much so that Ms. Anderson stopped attending. In April, religious clergy signed a letter calling for a moratorium on the plan because of the tensions it was causing in the community. In May, members of the Newark Students Union camped out in a district building in protest.

But the plan has also changed in a number of ways to reflect community feedback: Hawthorne Avenue School, for example, which was scheduled to be turned over to a charter operator in the upcoming school year, will remain open as a district school and evening high school services will continue to be provided by the district instead of being outsourced.

In a recent update, the district said that 12,604 families had participated in phase one of the enrollment process called One Newark Enrolls. More than half of those who participated listed charter schools as their number one choice, buttressing Ms. Anderson’s contention that parents were already choosing charters over district schools. Ms. Anderson said she was not surprised by the enrollment numbers given that “there are certain wards that don’t have any schools that could be defined as anything other than struggling or failing.”

The state, seeing the discord, announced the formation of a working group of state officials, Ms. Anderson, the clergy, and local residents to review the plan.

Ras Baraka, a former city high school principal who was sworn in as mayor last week, has advanced his own school improvement plan. His union-backed alternative calls for a return to local control, as well as community schools that provide wraparound services; rigorous academic curricula; school discipline that minimizes out-of-school suspensions; and professional development for teachers of English-language learners.

But he has no real authority over the school system and will likely have a full plate, given the challenges facing the city—violent crime, a threatened state takeover of the city’s finances, and a recently downgraded bond rating.

Mr. Baraka’s office did not make him available for an interview. However, in a recent Wall Street Journal article on charter schools preferences in One Newark Enrolls, Mr. Baraka said the district should provide some charter-like services, including longer school days and field trips, to students in district-run schools.

“Newark has to do better in marketing [district] public schools that are successful,” he told the paper.

For her part, Ms. Anderson said she and Mr. Baraka have had a productive relationship in the past, which she intends to continue.

“The mayor-elect and I share a real passion for young people, particularly young people who have experienced tremendous life struggles,” Ms. Anderson said. “As he’s said, there is a difference between campaigning and governing, and governing is about finding common ground, and I believe we have a lot of it.”

But Mr. Baraka, she said, needs to decide whether he is going to be “pro-kid” or maintain his strong allegiance to the teachers’ union.

An alternative version of this story appeared as “Newark’s Embattled Schools Chief Signed Up for Three More Years” in the July 9, 2014 edition of Education Week.
A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2014 edition of Education Week as Newark’s Embattled Schools Chief Signed Up for Three More Years

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