New Jersey’s largest school district began its new year yesterday, with 30,000 students and 3,600 teachers returning to Newark classrooms amid a swirl of activity – both educational and political.
Superintendent Cami Anderson marked opening day with a campaign for better attendance across the district.
The day before, Gov. Chris Christie had announced that he would be reappointing her to lead the state-run district at the end of the school year, brushing aside any of the superintendent’s local critics and saying “We run the school district in Newark, not them.”
In an interview with NJ Spotlight at the end of the first day, Anderson wouldn’t speak about her reappointment or the governor’s comments, but she had plenty else to say about the new school year, the continued implementation of the district’s landmark teacher contract – which includes performance bonuses for the first time – and her goals for the year.
Q: How did the first day go?
A: It went great. We had three events at three different schools to highlight the importance of attendance. I think it was well-received. We were able to talk to students, families, activists, faith-based community, and I feel we accomplished our goal to get the word out about the importance of attendance and rally everyone to come together to address it.
Q: Why the specific focus on this? Is it a particularly big problem in Newark?
A: Poor attendance is a real barrier to student outcomes. When kids come to school and on time, they do much better, they graduate more often. It actually comes out to be a pretty important indicator of student success. When we studied it more deeply this summer, we always knew there would be more challenges in a city like Newark, but we finally had data that showed chronic absenteeism in Newark was three times the national average. I do believe that in my heart and soul that if we cut absenteeism in half, it will directly impact our ability to help our kids succeed.
Q: But isn’t it as much about the issues of the community and the barriers of poverty?
A: Certainly there is a high correlation between absenteeism and poverty, but at the same time there are schools in Newark that are actually doing much better, and if you look at national research, a little bit goes a long way, particularly in communities with economic challenges.
The other good news is that you can impact it when you work across all stakeholder groups. It cannot be solved by one group. It’s not families alone, it’s not police alone, it’s not schools alone. When is everyone working together, you can make a huge dent in absenteeism.
Q: Isn’t it also about kids feeling that nobody at schools care or even will notice if they are late or absent?
A: Kids attend schools when they are known and noticed, and when they feel they will miss something. We need to create a path that makes all of our schools great, because that makes them a draw, and we also have to make sure every kid feels connected to an adult in a school. And we need to connect with families so they know the consequences of absenteeism. It’s everyone.
Q: This is not the only thing going on. A new high school choice program, more so-called “renew schools” are also new this year. Where do they all stand at Day 1?
A: We opened three new “renew” high schools, two at Barringer and one at West Side high schools. They were new in that we chose a new leader and they were able to choose new staff, we did facility and technology upgrades, a curriculum overhaul, and a ton of community organizing.
We completed the high school choice process where 99 percent of our 8th graders participated in choosing their high schools, with the result is we have more young people going to their choice of schools than ever before.
Q: Talk about your goals for the year in general.
A: Making sure the teachers’ contract is implemented well and actually helps support teachers, retain great teachers and exit low performers remains a main goal. The second thing is continuing to cultivate transformational leadership at the principal level. And the third is to continue to overhaul and support schools to better connect with students and families, so that we are really breaking down the barriers in school enrollment.
Q: These are all continuations of past goals? Is there anything new to this year?
A: I think bold change requires setting a vision and priorities and staying the course. We have big things planned on all three, but success will require us staying focused on the levers that we believe are the building blocks of success. And those fundamentally have not changed.
Q: Newark is further along than most in teacher evaluation, and you announced that you have issued the first performance bonuses under the new contract to more than 100 teachers. What are the lessons of the first year?
A: We are really in great shape, because most of what the new state statute requires, we have one or even two years under our belt. The thing I want to focus on this year is on an incentive for a new master’s program for teachers who want to teach to the Common Core, and it will be interesting how people in higher ed respond. And the other priority is working with the Newark Teachers Union in working on addressing other positions that are not classroom teachers – the guidance counselors, technology coordinators -- who we know play a really critical role.
Q: Does your teacher evaluation system include student performance measures, including state tests?
A: It depends on the grade, but student mastery is one of the competencies for teachers. That means the administrator will look at multiple measures of student outcome, including standardized test scores but also very importantly other interim assessments, reading and writing assessments. High-stakes standardized tests is a very narrow part of looking at whether students have mastered the material.
Q: In your third year, you continue to face some vocal community criticism of your tenure so far in the district, with the state’s ongoing control of the district under continued challenge and the local advisory board voting “no-confidence” last year. Is broader community engagement among your goals for the new school year as well?
A: When you ask about top priorities for the year, one of them is making sure we break down the barriers between school and home. We have hired community and family engagement teams, and we will continue to keep innovating and working at that goal.
And in terms of broader community engagement, I place a high premium on small or large group, one-on-one, town hall, brown bag meetings, and my schedule speaks for itself in terms of my commitment to living in and working with the community of Newark. In fact, the notion that the community is so passionate about education is one of the things that drew me here.
Q: Are there lessons from the first couple of years on this?
A: My commitment remains to breaking down the barriers between families and schools, and on continuing to have vigorous conversations about the bold changes that are going to be required to get breakthrough results. My expectation is those conversations will be rigorous and heated at times, and that is the stuff of deep and lasting change. I am prepared to do it, and I am excited about it, and I believe that most Newarkers respect the fact that I am committed to that.