For a first day of school that saw thousands of Newark children return to classes yesterday, there was certainly a lot of attention on the adults.
State-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson launched her “One Newark” universal enrollment plan in earnest, rolling out of scores of buses across the city to provide the first district-wide choice in the state’s largest school system.
Anderson held three press events, including a press conference at the end of the day that touted the opening and, separately, played up the student achievement gains in some of the lowest-performing schools in the city.
“We are on the move, Newark schools are on the move,” Anderson declared. “And we are dedicated to make sure that movement continues, and to accelerate that movement.”
It was a day of celebration -- or at least relief -- for the embattled superintendent, as she was joined by the state’s acting education commissioner, David Hespe, and her local advisory board chairman, Rashon Hasan.
With Gov. Chris Christie out of the state in Mexico, she got the next best thing in terms of his chief spokesman, Kevin Roberts.
“The work she is doing here is showing remarkable progress in a place we know desperately needs it,” Roberts said yesterday during a break in the schedule. “She has the total support of the governor for One Newark and what she is doing in the district.”
But that’s not to say the day went smoothly, nor without dissent.
The buses rolled from heavily staffed transportation hubs throughout the city, but by and large they were far from full, if not near-empty in some cases.
Attendance overall was down, although it was unclear if it was any lower than the usual first-day numbers. Details were unavailable, the district said.
Anderson already faces a chorus of protest from community activists and union leaders. That didn’t change yesterday, as critics held their own events to play up the problems.
“It was not a good opening of school,” said Joseph Del Grosso, president of the Newark Teachers Union. “There were a lot of bumps in the road, but nothing unexpected for a plan that was never expected to work.”
He pointed out the near-empty school buses, reminding those who would listen that Anderson had laid off technology coordinators and attendance officers. “Yet we can afford to hire buses with nobody on them?,” he said.
Anderson said the full cost of the new transportation service was unavailable.
In a city of nearly 40,000 students and 100 schools, including the independent charters, it was hard to gauge any consensus about the school opening. It often rested with the speaker, and Anderson clearly took the offensive in planning a full day of public events and what she touted as good news for the district.
No secret was the competition of a high-profile boycott waged by her staunchest critics, one that saw a handful of “freedom schools” launched across the district for boycotting families -- even if they, too, saw only scattered attendance yesterday.
Organizers put out a press release contending “hundreds of families” had committed to the boycott, and they held their own press conference decrying the "One Newark" plans and calling for Anderson’s removal, a common refrain of late.
“We are escalating to a boycott because we have used every organizing tool available to us,” said Johnnie Lattner, one of the organizers. “Today we make a stand against Cami Anderson dividing, destroying, dismissing, dismantling, and disrespecting parents, students, teachers, and community.”
Anderson yesterday played down the unrest, saying it stemmed from parent dissatisfaction over the dearth of quality schools in the city that she was seeking to redress.
“I understand their frustration,” she said. “There is just one in four schools in Newark that would be considered good, and that is far too few.”
At lunchtime, she met with students of East Side High School and talked about college readiness. An hour later, it was the Quitman Street School, one of seven so-called renew schools that she touted as showing consistent achievement gains after being among the district’s lowest performing.
The presentation itself came with some drama; it was invitation only and several people – among them some of Anderson’s most vocal critics -- were left outside unable to get in. Nevertheless, Anderson was able to turn the conversation from the criticisms of her One Newark plan to more upbeat news.
In maybe the most heartening news, she said the district had seen its first uptick in enrollment, with 1,700 more families enrolled than last year. The details were unclear, and even the achievement gains came without much context as to how the rest of the district was doing. Anderson said that data would be made available in the future.
But there was clearly an optimistic mood among the administration that for the past several months, if not longer, had only been hearing criticism of Anderson and her plans.
The criticism had been enough that Hespe recently created a separate community advisory board to monitor Anderson and the implementation of One Newark, although its members have yet to be announced.
Yesterday, Hespe said the local commission was coming soon, but he was all praise for the superintendent.
“I think today was a great day in setting a tone around student success and positive things being done for children, and that will set a tone for the rest of the year,” Hespe said.
Overall, he expressed full confidence in the decision to reappoint Anderson -- even if under some conditions, including a year-to-year renewals.
“She has managed this transition process over the summertime, and engaged the community, and the fruits of that we are seeing today,” Hespe said.
How much any of this back and forth among adults affects what happens in the schools is arguable, to be sure. One place expected to be in the spotlight was the Hawthorne Avenue School in the city’s South Ward, one of the schools initially set to be closed under the One Newark plan but then revived by Anderson under community pressures.
Yesterday, it drew the attention of press and politicians alike as the first buses pulled up, albeit with only a few students on board. On hand were Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, an outspoken critic of Anderson, and state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, the influential Senate education committee chairman and recent critic of the One Newark plan.
Still, it was the first day of school, one ostensibly more about the children than the adults. Principal Grady James, who had faced the axe with Hawthorne’s closing but was back on the job yesterday, said it wasn’t the time to discuss One Newark.
Greeted by families and students alike, James said his central job remained the same: "I do this every day -- greet children with a warm smile and a welcome and get their minds focused on education.”
Dale Russakoff, a freelance journalist, contributed to this article.