In the shadows of one of the city’s most successful high schools, the beginning of the end of New Jersey’s long-contentious oversight of Newark public schools unofficially started yesterday.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and state-appointed superintendent Chris Cerf together hosted a small gathering outside Newark’s Technology High School to both open the school year for the district and to mark what in all likelihood will be the last such opening under state control.
The state Board of Education is expected next week to move on a resolution that would start the process of ceding control after more than 20 years, one of the longest such state interventions in the country.
“We are all here this morning to officially open up schools for the 2017-18 school year,” Cerf said yesterday. “But I think all who are here in attendance this morning know that today is about much more than that.”
Like any start of the school year, it was a day full of possibilities and optimism.
Once a prime antagonist in the city’s tug of war of power, Cerf yesterday listed the improvements made in the district, from school and student performance to the community’s own capacity to govern its own schools.
He cited how graduation rates neared 80 percent last year — up from 60 percent in 2011 — and gains in student test scores exceeded the state averages. The gains at Technology High School got special mention, for both exceeding state averages but also overall performance.
“I mention all this not because I think it is good enough or I think any single person is responsible for this progress, but because it is essential as we move forward to local control to build on this great progress,” he said.
Some of Cerf’s previous critics were not shy about returning the praise, either. Marques Aquil Lewis, the president of the local advisory board that will ultimately regain control, had been among the loudest voices against the state operation over the past five years.
Yesterday, he thanked Cerf for helping bring the district over the finish line. “What counts is making that touchdown, and under [Cerf’s] leadership, we have made that touchdown,” he told Cerf from the dais.
“Thank you for your drive and leadership and commitment to the students of the city,” Lewis said.
That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of challenges to come. The district is a $1 billion operation, with thousands of interests — and jobs — at stake. Competing factions and voices are in no short supply.
A notable absence from yesterday’s event was leadership from the Newark Teachers Union, representing 3,700 teachers and staff and a frequent thorn in the state’s operation, to put it mildly.
John Abeigon, the NTU’s president, said he wasn’t invited to the event yesterday and he bid the state’s control “good riddance.” But in an emailed statement, he also focused more on the prospects ahead than the vitriol of the past.
“Throughout the past two decades, the Newark Teachers Union has stood side by side with the city’s students, parents, and leaders in the educational community in the fight for self-determination and a truly independent, democratically elected school board,” Abeigon said. “That goal has finally been achieved.
“We will, as we always have, continue to work with the community as the educational experts to facilitate and guide them through the rough road of transition to democracy, always with students and staff as our moral compass.”
Baraka also joined the celebratory mood, saying afterward that he didn’t worry too much about the possible debates and bumps that lie ahead.
“It’s pretty much up to us as a community to decide how we want to govern,” he said in an interview with NJ Spotlight. “Most of the discussion has been political at this point, but the stuff really important to me is how we move this forward educationally, so we are not ever in this situation again. We don’t want to be in this situation ever again.”
Baraka recognized there are factions and interests to be bridged. “I can never believe we will be completely in agreement on everything, but it’s part of democracy, man, it’s the way it is all over the country,” he said. “But we’ll be in charge of our own faculties, that’s the important thing.”
At the same time, the mayor left no question that he will have a role, too.
After pressing hard for local control in both his campaign and tenure as mayor, Baraka has said up to this point that he supports the transition lead to an elected school board, not one appointed by the mayor.
But with the new board’s prime task to appoint the next superintendent — with Cerf expected to step aside — Baraka would still like a say. “Of course,” he said. “I live here. I should have a say.”
Among the less well-known attendees yesterday — and one of its youngest — was Technology’s senior class president Yaa Obeng. And following her own remarks to the group, she said that the push and pull over control of her schools is not lost on the students.
“The local board knows more about us than does the state,” she said. “You know what they say, if you want something done right, you should do it yourself.”