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Settling Into New Job, Cerf Must Come to Terms with Opposition to ‘One Newark’

The state is saying the controversial enrollment program remains in place for now, but critics are already calling for its elimination

chris cerf
Newark schools Superintendent Chris Cerf

With the leadership of the state’s largest school system in transition, the natural next question is “What happens to ‘One Newark’?”

One Newark is the controversial universal enrollment system that was the legacy -- and maybe the downfall -- of outgoing superintendent Cami Anderson, a system that combined district and charter schools into one citywide program.

The system proved contentious in its first year -- to say the least -- moving students in and around the city in sometimes mysterious ways. With Anderson’s exit, new superintendent Chris Cerf will have to address those challenges and complaints head on -- with little time to spare before schools open in six weeks.

As the state’s former education commissioner, Cerf had a hands-on feel for Anderson’s plan. But publicly, at least, he is taking a deliberative approach, meeting people and working the phones and email in his first week in the new job.

“I am learning as much as I can, as fast as I can,” Cerf said in an email yesterday. “I am very grateful to both my new colleagues as well as the many members of the community who have been so open and helpful in that process.”

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the Senate education committee chair and a Newarker was among the most outspoken about Anderson and One Newark last fall. She said yesterday that she hoped that Cerf would open the discussion for some necessary changes.

“We need much more open and transparent dialogue,” she said in an interview.

“I had concerns about the roll-out [of One Newark last fall], the transportation, the cost, the algorithm that was used in the selection process,” Ruiz said of last year’s launch. “I’m sure there may have been the success stories, but that’s not what we heard.

“We heard about the children who had to go across town for school,” she said, “or those who had pick-up at 6:30 a.m.”

Other leaders have said changes to One Newark are essential for the district to move forward under new leadership. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said in an interview with NJ Spotlight last week that there cannot be a repeat of last year.

“I know that One Newark is extremely problematic,” Baraka said. “Hopefully [Cerf] understands the wisdom of not keeping things the way they are.”

When asked if it’s all or nothing with One Newark or whether there could be adjustments, Baraka said it needs to be abolished and the district moved back to a neighborhood-school system.

He conceded that given the tight timing, families already in new schools should be allowed to stay -- at least through the fall. “But we need to give people the option to go to school in their neighborhood,” he said.

Baraka said an immediate course-correction was necessary: “I know a lot of people say it would be chaotic [to alter course now]. But if we do it now, it can happen.”

In the end, how much will change remains uncertain.

Cerf wasn’t saying much yet, but the official line is the system will stay in place for now.

Assistant Commissioner of Education Peter Shulman, who was leading the transition team between Anderson and Cerf, said last week at Cerf’s appointment that One Newark was still the plan for the fall, albeit with some improvements.

For one, the enrollment center for the new system -- now called the Family Support Center -- opened this week on West Kinney Street, a month earlier than last year. Shulman in an interview promised better communication with families would lead to a smoother opening in the fall.

“We’re doing our best to support it in the next couple of weeks with the right personnel and logistics,” Shulman said of the center.

When asked whether any changes were in the offing, Shulman said there were only a few at this point: “That’s true of most things I’m doing there. It’s about continuity.”

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