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When ‘Oprah’ and the Nation Turned Their Eyes to Newark’s Public Schools

Book looks at what happened to $100M gift from Facebook founder – and reform efforts it inspired


Five years ago today, television cameras focused on Newark as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg appeared on “Oprah” to announce he would give $100 million to the city’s public schools. Joining him for the nationally-televised announcement were Gov. Chris Christie and then-mayor Cory Booker, who had brokered the deal.

Dale Russakoff, a former Washington Post reporter, chronicled the event and what happened to the $100 million and the school-reform efforts it helped spur in Newark over the last five years in her bestselling book, “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?”

On the fifth-year anniversary, NJ Spotlight offers some excerpts from the book:

Booker makes his pitch

The agreement with Zuckerberg actually started in December 2009, with Booker taking Christie for a nighttime drive through Newark. The following excerpt from the book describes that moment of truth.

In the back seat of the Tahoe, Booker turned to Christie and proposed that they work together to transform education in Newark.

With Christie’s absolute legal authority and Booker’s mayoral bully pulpit, they could close failing district schools, greatly expand charter schools, weaken tenure protections, reward and punish teachers based on their students’ test scores. It was an agenda the incumbent Democratic governor, Jon Corzine, likely never would have embraced, out of loyalty to teachers’ unions. Christie’s upset victory over Corzine, in Booker’s view, represented “a once in a lifetime chance to get the system on the right track.”

They shared a belly laugh at the prospect of confounding the political establishment with an alliance between a white, suburban Republican and a black, urban Democrat. Booker warned that they would face a brutal fight with unions and machine politicians invested in the status quo. With 7,000 people on its payroll, the school district was the biggest public employer in a city of roughly 270,000. Shaking it up, Booker said, was sure to activate the same coalition that had foiled his first mayoral bid, spreading rumors that he was gay, Jewish, a closet Republican, and a Trojan horse for white, monied outsiders. Booker could barely see in the pitch dark, but as he described all that ugliness, he got the distinct impression that Christie was salivating.

“Heck, I got maybe six votes in Newark,” the governor-to-be responded. “Why not do the right thing?”

Far from “Oprah”

At the same time of the announcement on “Oprah” five years ago, Russakoff began her reporting from an unusual district school that was seeking to break the mold of the district’s longstanding struggles.

Far from the set of the “Oprah” show, a young teacher from Newark named Princess Williams had embarked on a profoundly different approach to repairing public education. For eighteen months, Williams had worked with school leaders Dominique Lee, Charity Haygood, and three other teachers and administrators preparing to take the helm of Avon Avenue School, one of the very worst in the state, in one of Newark’s poorest neighborhoods. Booker was right, they agreed, that the district urgently needed a systemic overhaul. But as teachers, they knew that transforming education would require far more than strict accountability, performance incentives, and heightened emphasis on data. They were intimately familiar with the challenges Newark children brought to the classroom, and they knew of no model for addressing them other than child by child, teacher by teacher, school by school, from the bottom up. As Booker, Zuckerberg, and Christie vowed on television to create a national model for turning around failing districts within five years, Williams, Lee and Haygood resolved to commit their entire careers to Newark’s schools. They considered themselves reformers too, having arrived in the Newark school district initially through Teach for America. Princess Williams, who signed on as Avon’s lead kindergarten teacher, felt a sense of destiny about teaching Newark children.

Lee referred to Room 112, Williams’s kindergarten classroom, as “the future.” The door opened onto a room appointed with simple, homemade learning activities — a large calendar highlighting the date and day of the week, a chart displaying the day’s weather (clouds),

Post-it notes in a repeating color pattern enumerating the days since school started. A clothesline stretched across the room, with student work hanging at child’s-eye level. On this day, the line displayed colored paper on which children had represented the numbers zero through ten in dots, stars, or blocks. Williams had written an enthusiastic remark on each.

Looking younger than her twenty-seven years, the small, pretty teacher wearing a rose-colored blouse over brown cropped pants commanded complete attention from twenty-three children seated before her on an alphabet rug. “We have a special visitor who would like to show you two new letters,” she announced with excitement. “Drumroll, please!”

The children rapidly and rhythmically slapped their legs, eyes focused with anticipation on Williams. The teacher reached dramatically behind a whiteboard and slowly, her dark eyes widening, revealed a white stuffed owl with brown speckles, holding a card bearing the letter O in its beak. There were oohs, ahhs, and wriggles of excitement.

Charter v. district school

One of the book’s most compelling chapters – and most compelling themes – draws on Russakoff’s reporting on the differences between charter and district schools in Newark, both in terms of quality and resources. The following section recounts the 2011 opening of the charter SPARK Academy, which was sharing space with the district-run Carver Elementary School.

It was a week before the first day of school at SPARK Academy, the charter elementary school that shared space with Carver Elementary, in one of Newark’s most impoverished and violent neighborhoods. SPARK principal Joanna Belcher was leading her teachers in a workshop on the “growth mindset,” which called for viewing setbacks — for children as well as themselves — as opportunities to learn. The thirty-year-old Belcher hardly looked the part of an inner-city principal — she was white, with long, thick golden-brown hair — but she had won the affection of Carver as well as SPARK teachers with her respectful attitude and passion for excellence and justice. She had worked in inner-city district schools for six years in Washington, D.C., and in California, and had resisted working for charter schools until KIPP leaders promised her a school that enrolled, in her words, “kids most charters don’t serve.” On the back of all the teachers’ chairs, she had taped a statistic for them to contemplate. For example: “Only 1/10 students growing up in poverty will graduate from college.”

In midsession, who should arrive but Cory Booker. He was escorting Cari Tuna, then the girlfriend, later the wife, of Dustin Moskovitz, who had become a billionaire by virtue of cofounding Facebook with Mark Zuckerberg, his Harvard roommate. Hoping Moskovitz and Tuna would help match Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift, Booker took her to see two of the city’s highest-performing charter schools.

Booker vowed to do anything to help SPARK succeed. He told the teachers that Belcher had his cell-phone number, that he expected her to call or text him with any problems. “Hit me up on Facebook. Tweet me. I will respond and take care of it,” he promised.

Most of SPARK’s teachers had begun their careers as recruits to Teach for America. Unlike many of their TFA peers, who left the classroom after two years, they had continued to teach in inner cities, becoming fiercely committed to addressing the needs of underserved children, whether in district or charter schools. They had moved over the summer onto the third floor of George Washington Carver, which had lost forty percent of its enrollment in nine years. Belcher and her team were impressed by the dedication and passion that Winston Jackson, Carver’s principal, had for the school and its community. But they were alarmed to learn that the district had for years treated Carver as a dumping ground for teachers no other principal wanted. The result was that some of the weakest teachers had charge of some of the city’s most challenging children. By contrast, Belcher recruited nationally for teachers she deemed best suited to meet her students’ needs.

The SPARK teachers took Booker up on his offer to help them. One problem, they said, was a row of burned-out and abandoned houses across the street from the school, dangerous havens for crime and criminals that Carver and SPARK children passed daily. “If kids have to go through a pathway of hazards, that’s reprehensible,” Booker replied. “Tweet me and I’ll put my director of neighborhood services on it.” The houses had stood vacant for years without triggering city attention. The same was true of the environs of most schools in the South Ward.

The teachers asked Booker what his plan was to support the Carver students, who occupied the other floors of the building. Fewer than thirty percent of them were reading at their grade level. “I’ll be very frank,” Booker answered. “I want you to expand as fast as you can. But when schools are failing, I don’t think pouring new wine into old skins is the way. We need to close them and start new ones.”

One of twenty-three schools in Newark in danger of being closed for rock-bottom test performance under the No Child Left Behind law, Carver indeed was failing. But why? The district had systematically neglected it. So had the police. For years, gangs routinely held violent nighttime initiation rites in the school’s play area, and sometimes Jackson arrived early in the morning to find blood pooled on school steps. He reported this at community meetings with police and pleaded for extra security, but never got a response.

Within a month of SPARK’s arrival, there was another initiation, with blood splattered on school steps and bloody handprints on the sidewalk. A security camera recorded grainy images of nine young men mauling another at 9:30 at night, while some SPARK teachers remained at work on the third floor. The next morning, Jackson immediately emailed two school district officials, asking them to arrange a meeting with Anderson and the police. No one responded. Belcher wrote to the same officials six days later, asking, “Please let us know what the next steps are.” Still no response.

Jackson then asked Belcher to email the mayor, which she did, attaching three pictures of the trail of blood on “the steps our K–2 scholars use to enter the building.” Within twenty minutes, Booker responded: “Joanna, your email greatly concerned me. I have copied this email to the police director who will contact you as soon as possible. Cory.” Police director Samuel DeMaio called the next day, the police captain for the precinct visited the day after that, and the gang unit soon afterward. Police stepped up their after-hours presence around the school, and a detective assured Belcher and Jackson that the gang members would congregate elsewhere when they realized the area was being watched. The gang indeed moved on.

Conclusion: No Excuses

Russakoff ends the book with her observations about what she learned – and what Zuckerberg himself learned from his Newark experience.

Put another way, education reform is too important to be left to reformers alone. One person who drew this lesson from Newark was Mark Zuckerberg. He had vowed at the outset to learn from his experience and to use it to become a better philanthropist. Based on his subsequent initiatives, he appears to have learned a lot. He and Priscilla Chan have said publicly that they intend to spend the rest of their lives as philanthropists working on the challenge of improving education for the nation’s most underserved children. With their Newark commitment due to expire at the end of 2015, they have refocused their Startup: Education foundation on low-income communities close to home, in the Bay Area. A priority of the foundation from now on, according to Jen Holleran, is understanding the desires of the communities where they make grants. There are likely to be a lot of them. With a contribution of almost $1 billion in stock to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation for unspecified future gifts, Zuckerberg and Chan became the nation’s most generous philanthropists in 2013. They announced plans in May 2014 for $120 million in grants to schools in a series of high-poverty communities in the Bay Area. The amount was similar in size to their gift to Newark, but the method was not. The couple wrote in an op-ed in the San Jose Mercury News that they were working through parents, teachers, school leaders, and officials of both charter organizations and school districts “so that we understand the needs of students that others miss.” By contrast, in Newark they worked through politicians and arrived with little knowledge of the community, the schools, or the impediments to reform.

Excerpted from THE PRIZE: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? by Dale Russakoff. Copyright © 2015 by Dale Russakoff. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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