For one of the first times since the announcement of the $100 million Facebook gift to Newark schools six months ago, there was a glimmer of optimism and celebration yesterday over the future of New Jersey’s largest school district.
Gov. Chris Christie was at Science Park High School to announce the appointment of a new Newark schools superintendent, Cami Anderson, and many of the city’s key players were in the room, a few even applauding and smiling.
Even that reaction was no small thing in a city that has been more torn than unified in the months since the gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg drew national headlines.
But for all the hopeful glow of the hour-long press event yesterday, and Anderson saying all the politic things about working together and improving the schools one by one, the tough realities now facing the 39-year-old nominee in her new post were not far away.
Potentially hundreds of layoffs loom for next year, a community continues to be roiled by charter schools in its midst, and Joseph Del Grosso, the Newark Teachers Union (NTU) president was primed for a fight last night after he was noticeably not invited to the governor’s announcement.
It didn’t even take that long, as a small group of angry parent activists waited outside the school to confront a few of the dignitaries, including Anderson herself and Mayor Cory Booker. Anderson didn’t engage them. Booker exchanged a few words before he stepped into the rain and a waiting car.
Whatever awaits her, Anderson yesterday provided a compelling first impression: a Harvard-educated Californian who has spent the past five years running alternative programs for some of the most disenfranchised kids in New York City schools. (To give a sense of scale, just those programs serve 40,000 students on a given day, the size of the entire Newark district.)
Anderson was described as both a dedicated educator committed to social equity and a no-nonsense manager who knew the intricacies of making organizational changes as well as instructional ones.
Her stints as leader of Teach for America and the New Leaders for New Schools program in New York City gave her school reform credentials, while her work with union leadership in closing and consolidating schools also exhibited a pragmatism for getting things accomplished.
One of her more memorable lines yesterday: "One of the clear messages I have heard from everyone in Newark. We don’t want more dreams. We don’t want a hero."
"Believe me, I understand it," she said, "education is not an individual sport."
But when she starts in June, her $240,000 contract pending approval of the state Board of Education, how Anderson translates that promise to the schools will be the test. She said improvements wouldn’t happen immediately, and even Christie was saying the change he seeks wouldn’t happen overnight, "within three weeks or even within a year."
Lucious Jones, a longtime parent activist who attended the press conference, said it was a good first test.
"We got her press face today," he said. "Now I want to see her community face, and whether she can work in a community that is starting to ask questions."
He referred to the often raucous meetings that have taken place over the past several months in the lead-up to Anderson’s selection, as the Christie administration has begun to put its plans in place for the district.
"Those meetings are going to continue to be packed," Jones said. "That’s not going to suddenly change now."
A big point of contention has been the administration’s plan for consolidating or closing under-enrolled district schools and sharing others with charter schools. Anderson did not say much about charter schools in general or the administration’s plans specifically, saying only that she had built a varied network of schools in New York.
Anderson was also circumspect about looming issues with the NTU, not the least of which contract talks that have been all but stalled until the superintendent was selected.
“I think there is a real chance to work together," she said yesterday. "It is a huge opportunity, and I really look forward to sitting down and finding common points of passion."
Del Grosso said last night that he was feeling less gracious after not being invited to the press conference, a conspicuous absence.
"I don’t think that’s an indication of a very good start," he said.
And that only got Del Grosso started, as he brought back the name of Beverly Hall, the last New York City educator to lead Newark schools, only to leave under fire. He said Anderson would have no grace period in having to deal with the impending layoffs and the charter tensions as well.
“There will be no honeymoon or time to acclimate," he said. "And there will be no neutrality from us, either. It will be either war or peace."
In between, the man who led a community task force that vetted Anderson and other finalists agreed there will be few easy days for the new superintendent.
Clement Price, the Rutgers history professor and longtime civic leader, acknowledged Anderson was not a Newarker and will be the first white superintendent in more than 40 years, two distinctions that might have once been disqualifiers for the top schools post.
"But we need to get over this nonsense that you need to be born and bred here to understand the city," Price said.
"When she speaks about education, it makes sense," he said. "She doesn’t hide behind the jargon, but puts education at the heart of her personal experience."
For all the recent trials so far in the wake of the Zuckerberg money, Price said this was one of the good days.
"What was in part a very awkward selection process may have been saved by the quality of its result," he said.