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A Snapshot of Newark's New School Year: Pivotal and Promising

Expectations are high for the state's largest school district, now it's all about delivery.

Malcom X. Shabazz High School is among 17 Newark schools that will have new principals this year.

A new, reform-minded superintendent, almost quarter of its schools with new principals, $150 million in private money (and counting), almost $1 billion in public money (and counting) and a city restive after 16 years of state control.

Welcome to the Newark school year, 2011-12.

Ready or not -- depending on the perspective -- New Jersey's largest and most-watched district opens in the next week, with teachers returning tomorrow and students next Tuesday.

And by all accounts it will be a pivotal year, in terms of the state’s long-running control of the district, the influence of a nationally hyped $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and whether the district's third superintendent in a decade can live up to her promises.

Of course, Hurricane Irene didn’t help much.

"We will definitely be ready, but safe to say the hurricane added to the degree of difficulty," said Cami Anderson, appointed superintendent by Gov. Chris Christie last spring and starting her first full year with a menu of changes.

She said 18 schools were affected by the wind and rain, six of them significantly. But repairs continue, and Anderson said families and students won't be the worse for it come Tuesday.

"If [we're] pumping out a basement, it just may mean a classroom doesn’t get painted,” she said.

But Anderson would rather focus on what she hopes will be productive changes when school doors open, with 17 new principals, scores of new teachers and systems she hopes will make a long-running difference.

She made her final decisions on the new principals yesterday, sending a district-wide memo introducing all of them, as well as a new principal leadership program that she says will assist the other 60-plus principals as well.

But that’s just the start. The district has filled 200 teaching slots, implemented a new selection and assignment process, and is ready to launch a teacher evaluation system in at least a half-dozen schools.

When asked whether the district will be a different place on the first day of school than it was on the last day of classes in June, she said: "We have made some fundamental shifts: leadership, teacher selection, operational changes, these are big shifts.”

The Oprah Winfrey Factor

Of course, expectations may be higher for the only New Jersey school district to get a plug on Oprah Winfrey's TV show, where the Zuckerberg gift was announced last fall.

In fact, that was a year ago this September, with the one-year anniversary of the announcement sure to gain almost as much attention, not to mention questions as to what has come of it.

The foundation administering the gift is gearing up for such questions, with its new director beginning to step out to promote the mix of grants already on the table and the work to come. There is more detail on the former than the latter.

Located in a still-sparse downtown office off Military Square, Foundation for Newark's Future director Greg Taylor quickly ticked off the half-dozen grants already handed out and the foundations five core missions.

“Community engagement, out-of-school students, new school models, early childhood education, and principal and teacher quality,” he said.

And Taylor said the foundation, with close to $50 million raised of the $100 million needed to match the full Zuckerberg gift, is already making its mark with grants to assist in the following projects:

  • three new district high schools in the district ($1.4 million),
  • extended learning time in another nine schools ($1 million),
  • three new charter schools ($1 million),
  • a yet-to-be-detailed package of principal and teacher quality programs ($1 million),
  • an innovation fund for individual teachers ($1.4 million), and
  • smaller grants toward new playgrounds ($110,000), shared campuses ($350,000), and a new and separate “pooled fund” consisting of more than a half-dozen Newark foundations ($250,000).

But it will be more than a million here and million there, he said. The foundation may be starting to build momentum and gain public and community support, but Taylor talked about building a legacy.

"This is about systematic change and programmatic change," Taylor said. “This is meant to be bold and transformational. . . I think we will be known for making a huge difference."

Taylor said he knows it will take real full public engagement. He acknowledged there is trust to build, and distrust to break down.

The ACLU Angle

Tensions have only mounted of late as a group of parents, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Jersey, filed suit for records and communications between Zuckerberg and state and city officials, especially Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a key player in the arrangement who has not hidden his desire to play a central role in the schools as well.

Taylor said the foundation will be "completely transparent" about its money and its grants, seeking community input all along the way. He acknowledged the current board only can claim one Newarker so far in Booker -- the rest are all big-time contributors, to the tune of $10 million each -- but he said a community advisory board will play a key role.

“The distrust comes from misinformation, and the Foundation for Newark’s Future needs to make clear it’s about execution and not just rhetoric,” he said.

Still, for both Anderson and Taylor, there remains some skepticism to overcome.

While Joseph DelGrosso, head of the Newark Teachers Union, has commended Anderson for her inclusion of the union in the development of the teacher evaluation pilot, he said other places still need work, with agreements not yet in place on extended days and other extraordinary measures for the lowest-performing schools.

"I’m hoping for a smooth opening, but there are some still unresolved issues," said DelGrosso. “I have a lot of apprehension.”

And he wasn’t backing down on what has become a new mission for the NTU, the return of local control to the district. With the union’s backing, the district's local advisory board this month voted to legally challenge the state's continued control, filing an appeal with the state Board of Education on Monday.

"We will get out of takeover, whether they like it or not, "DelGrosso said yesterday.

Others were less discordant, seeing a historic chance for the city and its schools, both district and charter. The newly formed Newark Education Trust, for example, will administer the new fund of private dollars -- now about $1 million -- coming from longstanding institutions like the Prudential Foundation and the Victoria Foundation.

"Our mission is to align, coordinate and focus resources," said Ross Danis, the trust’s director. "This is dead on to that, something we have always wanted to do, to bring some coherence to how money is allocated."

"Expectations are high," he continued. “But it’s all about execution, and everyone agrees on that.”

And all that starts in the next week, he and others said.

“A lot will be riding on that first day of school," said Junius Williams, a longtime community leader and now director of the Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers-Newark. "How [Anderson] navigates all the various intrigue even on that first day will determine a lot."

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