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Perspectives on the Passing of ‘Zuckerberg Era’ in Newark Schools

The Foundation for Newark’s Future -- caretakers of original Facebook gift -- has spent down the money and closed its doors

Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg

Five years ago, the Foundation for Newark’s Future opened its downtown Newark offices to serve as the platform for Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s now-famous $100 million gift to the city’s public schools.

Yesterday, the last director of the foundation wrote friends and supporters that the lights -- and email -- would be turned off. The foundation’s planned five-year run was officially over April 30.

“Well, alas, the time has come,” wrote Kimberly McLain, the foundation’s now-former CEO. “Foundation for Newark’s Future is officially a thing of the past.”

That doesn’t come as much of a surprise: the fund that totaled $200 million after matching gifts spent down its money for much of the past year and even held a gala farewell dinner this winter.

Actually, about $5 million in Zuckerberg money remains to be spent. It’s now in the hands of the Community Foundation of New Jersey for final disbursement. (Full disclosure: NJ Spotlight is a project of CFNJ, which serves as its fiscal agent.)

The shuttering of the foundation brings to an end what was a bold and closely watched, if at times imperfect, experiment in urban education. And there were no shortage of components worth watching, including nearly $50 million toward a landmark teachers contract, another $57 million to charter schools, and recently a $10 million commitment toward a new community-schools initiative in the city’s South Ward.

To mark the occasion, NJ Spotlight has asked the key players -- from the Facebook founder himself to Gov. Chris Christie to Newark Mayor Ras Baraka -- to give their perspectives on the Zuckerberg legacy in Newark. Some hesitated; some pointed to previous comments; others agreed. None refused outright -- yet.

Here are excerpts of some of their responses so far. We will add others as they come in. We invite readers to offer their opinions through email or comments.

Gov. Chris Christie, who joined Zuckerberg and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker in announcing the donation five years ago, speaking at a press conference on Wednesday:

"(The gift) improved the situation in the Newark Public Schools by helping to create more charter schools, by getting rid of some awful teachers. They helped, Mark helped to improve it, as did his wife. So we will always be very grateful to both of them for the help that they gave and the energy that they helped to create behind the charter movement in Newark, and I think you can see that even more now with the enormous waiting list there are for charters and demand there are for charters in Newark. They performed an incredible public service for the people of the City of Newark.”

"No one ever said that schools were going to improve across the board. Listen, Mark Zuckerberg contributed $100 million and we raised $100 million to match his 100. That’s $200 million, that’s not quite two-sevenths of what we spend a year in Newark, just from the state. So the idea that anybody thought that $200 million was going to be transformational across the entire district was being disingenuous. What it did was help to spur growth of charter schools and help us to spend some money to get rid of some awful teachers who otherwise would still be working there, because of the antiquated rules that the teachers union insists upon that doesn’t demand merit from teachers but just that you are there breathing long enough."

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, former mayor of Newark who first approached Zuckerberg, in an interview:

“One hundred million dollars over five years made an extraordinary impact, when you start looking at the measures where we made strategic investments, from literacy programs to efforts to expand college prep opportunities for kids … The way I look at FNF is one key block in a larger strategy to produce change, one that I haven’t been able to find in another city. There has been 300 percent increase in African-American kids in quality schools, the best city in the nation for clustering so-called beat the odds schools, schools that are high poverty, high performance. To massively expanding opportunities for parents to have choices and options. We’ve created in a very compressed period of time, thanks in significant part to this grant, that to just look at the data and the educational outcomes is pretty spectacular.”

“The grant primed the pump, just not the money, but primed the pump of activism in the city, for better or for worse. We went from an education system where there was too much tolerance of not just mediocrity, but tolerance of horrendously high failure rates for our kids. Now we have a system where engagement is so much higher, the turnout at school board elections, the number of people paying attention to the education of our kids.”

“If you told me at the end of this we would see 300 percent of African-American kids going to schools that beat the state average, a 200 percent increase in kids are in high-performing schools, a 10 percent increase in the graduation rate, if out-of-school placements would go down, if you told me we would have fostered all of that, it would have exceeded my expectations.”

Wilhemina Holder, grandmother and long-time public school activist:

“FNF was a big disappointment. I thought we could have really addressed some of the embedded challenges around quality education in Newark. Instead, perhaps, the only good outcome was support for early education.”

“I envisioned an authentic infrastructure to support students and families and building pipelines to higher education. Of course, this was a nonstarter. The challenges around authentic student support and building an infrastructure to support families, a critical piece of the puzzle paving the way forward was not even an afterthought.

“I believe we lost a great opportunity. Our children and community were the biggest losers in a political agenda.”

“Deeply disappointed …”

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, in an emailed statement:

“The Foundation for Newark’s Future is wrapping up its work in our city, and as it closes down, we look back on a valued team of caring, professional, and compassionate staffers who worked tirelessly to enhance education in Newark. Their legacy is firm in the minds and hearts of the many adults they supported and the youth they inspired. They have left an indelible positive impression in those young minds and hearts, particularly with our summer youth programs.”

“We commend Kimberly McClain for her leadership and immense commitment to Newark and its future and her belief in our young people. As we celebrate our city’s 350th year of commitment to its citizens and communities, we are honored to include FNF in the pantheon of leaders who have worked to transform Newark into America’s next destination city.”

Kimberly McLain, outgoing CEO of Foundation for Newark’s Future, recently appointed to head the Newark Alliance, in an email to friends and supporters yesterday:

“I share our biggest accomplishments and proudest moments of my tenure with all of you, in particular, several strong, impactful partnerships with an array of new stakeholders:

  • Expanding our footprint in community partnerships with over $2 million in investments in citywide literacy initiatives, including My Very Own Library and Raising a Reader;
  • Seeding $1.5 million for the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, the citywide initiative to increase the college graduation rate in Newark to 25 percent by 2025, under the leadership of Rutgers Newark and the other higher-education institutions that serve the city;

  • Joining forces with the mayor with $1.5 million for summer youth employment to provide real work opportunities for over 2,000 kids;

  • Cementing the partnership between the city and district by funding $1.2 million for a community schools’ initiative in the South Ward and a city-wide network to support the most at-risk youth; and

  • Collaborating with early education funders with $1 million collectively to improve quality of childcare centers and increase parental engagement.

These were no simple feats and we accomplished them because we worked together in partnership, on behalf of Newark’s kids and families. And as we end our journey with you, I know that Newark will continue to progress under the stewardship and leadership of the many passionate and committed individuals determined to provide Newark students the high quality education they deserve.”

Chris Cerf, superintendent of Newark Public Schools and former state education commissioner, in an essay first published in Education Post:

“We are also proud of the work that resulted in a new collective bargaining agreement, a really groundbreaking contract with our teachers. That, in combination with work we did with the New Teachers Project -- and with the benefit of the new state tenure law -- has enabled us to completely redesign the way we hire, evaluate and support our staff.”

“It is a stunning success that 95 percent of our highly effective educators have remained in the district in our classrooms, while less effective teachers have chosen not to return far more frequently. No longer are teachers compensated solely on the basis of time served; it is a combination of years of service and effectiveness. Of the 115 tenure charges filed over the last several years, mostly for ineffectiveness, 89 of those individuals are no longer with the district. (Virtually no such charges were brought before 2011.)

“Because of the success at the bargaining table, more than half of our schools now have a longer day and extra learning time. Teachers and administrators in those schools also receive record amounts of intensive professional development.”

Ryan Hill, founder and CEO of KIPP-New Jersey, Newark’s largest charter network:

“I think the big-picture conclusion is that if you’re an African-American kid in Newark today, you have a two to three times better chance of being in a high-performing school than you did prior to the FNF grant, and that is pretty enormous progress. As our analysis shows, this improvement is all due to the growth of high-performing charter schools, which was facilitated in part by the matching funds that FNF brought in. So I think the impact has been pretty big, and very positive. That said, there’s clearly still a lot of work to do.”

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