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New Initiative Revives ‘Community Schools’ Approach in Newark

Remaining funds from Zuckerberg gift will help finance program based on boosting involvement in decision-making at grassroots level

Newark education
Credit: Rob Salagia/NPS
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka (far right) speaks at yesterday's announcement. Joining him are (from left) Shabazz High School Principal Damon Holmes, Newark Superintendent Chris Cerf, and Baraka's education advisor, Lauren Wells.​​​​

In 2009, Newark and state leaders -- including then-Gov. Jon Corzine -- stood outside a Central Ward elementary school to launch what they called a game-changing initiative known as “community schools,” which would provide a range of social and other services to neighborhoods outside the classroom.

But that plan – encompassing half-a-dozen Newark schools and dubbed the “Global Village” -- fizzled out soon after Gov. Chris Christie took office and brought in Superintendent Cami Anderson with her own reform ideas for the state-run school district.

Yesterday, though, the concept came back full circle -- in more ways than one.

This time, another crowd of prominent names -- minus the governor -- gathered in Newark City Hall to announce a similar community schools initiative in the city’s beleaguered South Ward, this one with $12.5 million in high-profile private money attached.

Mayor Ras Baraka stood in the vaulted City Hall rotunda with state-appointed schools Superintendent Chris Cerf and a diverse crowd of union, community and foundation leaders to launch the South Ward Community Schools Initiative.

Personal connection

It was a fitting place for Baraka, who was principal of Central High School in 2009, when the school was the hub of the Global Village initiative. What’s more, his top education advisor, Lauren Wells, was on the New York University team that helped design that program, and she was on hand yesterday to participate in the event announcing its successor.

But even beyond the particulars of the plan – and the challenges ahead – the day also underscored how Baraka continues to leave his clear imprint on the district in what many expect to be its final years of state control.

Without formal legal powers over the schools, Baraka nonetheless embraced the South Wards Community Schools Initiative as another step in moving beyond the Anderson era.

“This is actually a good day in the city of Newark,” he said to open his comments, “the beginning of something that will live beyond the individuals who are hear in this room.”

The $12.5 million is funding is from the Foundation for Newark’s Future, the fund launched with a $100 million gift to the city’s schools from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

The funding is among FNF’s very last contributions to the city in what has been a tumultuous five years, to say the least. After this, its bank account will be down to about $15 million left from the original gift and the $100 million raised in matching funds, said Kimberly McLain, FNF’s president and CEO. The foundation plans to close its offices by next spring, fulfilling a promise to stay in Newark for only five years.

Baraka, in his speech, took some not-so-veiled swipes at the foundation and alluded to the protests that greeted Anderson’s reform agenda – much of it endorsed by Cerf when he served as state education commissioner.

“As people parachute in, pass out money and have us at each other's throats, our children are still stuck for the most part," Baraka declared.

Contribution is acknowledged

But Baraka also noted that his new initiative would not be getting off the ground without FNF’s contribution, and afterward Baraka said his thinking on the subject has evolved somewhat over the years. FNF also helped fund a summer jobs initiative led by the city earlier this year.

“They had a rocky start that was kind of questionable,” the mayor said in an interview. “But they’re ending in the right way with the commitment to community schools and summer jobs. I wished it was happening for a long time, but it is the right thing to do.”

It’s not entirely clear how the initiative will work and what exactly will happen.

Cerf said planning will start immediately for bringing new programs and services into Shabazz High School, an anchor of the South Ward, and to the three or four of the elementary and middle schools that feed into it.

The aim is for the program to eventually go citywide in every ward, Cerf and Baraka said, but even which South Ward schools will take part is still undetermined. Central to the process, they said, will be listening to the community’s voice.

But it’s complicated. For instance, one prime candidate is Brick Avon Academy, an innovative hybrid school within the district whose executive director, Dominique Lee, attended yesterday’s event. Yet Brick Avon is itself seeking to break away from the district to become a charter school, with its application advancing just last week.

Schools more involved in decisions

Whichever school is chosen for the initiative, Cerf said the plan is to give the schools greater flexibility and freedom in shaping their budgets, a clear nod to the attraction of charter schools. Among those new freedoms will be the ability to hire staff and to direct funding to address specific needs, he said, something not typically afforded Newark’s public schools.

“I can assure you they will be given the tools and the support to create a level playing field with any school in the district, district or charter,” Cerf said.

At the same time, Cerf faces steep shortfall in his existing budget that likely portends program cuts, and he was quick to point out that this initiative would not be at the expense of other schools.

Private or otherwise, there is the question of what the money will buy. The idea of community schools is to provide additional programs to help the entire family, ranging from in-school health clinics to after-school and job-training classes, even including offerings on weekends and summer.

FNF has committed to providing up to $10 million for the community schools initiative and another $2.5 million to the Opportunity Youth Network, a program intended to help the estimated 3,000 high school-age students each year who have either dropped out or in danger of dropping out of school.

Where will funding come from later?

But as significant as that funding amount seems, it pales in comparison to the school district’s overall budget of close to $1 billion, and both Cerf and Baraka acknowledged there is little or no public money to back it up or replace it once the FNF funds are spent. That’s why part of the plan for the initiative is to create a citywide panel to promote the concept, including a fundraising component.

“That won’t last that long, so we will need to raise the money to do what we need to do,” Baraka said afterward.

Despite the dearth of details, the initiative won general support from those on hand yesterday as at least a step in the right direction.

Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon, often at odds with the district’s leadership, said he welcomed the community role and the fact that FNF was putting the last of its money back into the district. The principals’ union also issued a press release in support of the initiative, specifically lauding Baraka’s leadership.

There were some questions from community leaders, some of whom spoke up during the presentation and said parents need to be involved from the start – including those who may not necessarily support the initiative.

“Don’t let them push out people not in total agreement,” said Denise Cole, a Central Ward parent who spoke up during the question-and-answer session. “We need our voices heard, too.”

A compelling voice also came from Damon Holmes, principal of Shabazz High School. The extra services will help address what he said are the irrevocable links between what happens outside the school and what happens inside, be it violence, drugs or just the ravages of poverty.

“What I like most about this is the honesty that comes with it,” he said. “The honesty that the South Ward is struggling right now, and it is no secret that schools usually if not always mirror the communities they serve.’’

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