Newark School Superintendent’s Long Goodbye

As he serves out the last year of his contract, superintendent Clifford Janey's legacy can be seen in mayor's new educational initiative

Two years ago, Clifford Janey, the now-vanquished superintendent of Newark schools, spoke of lofty goals in bold language.

He would lead a citywide effort to determine what Newark’s residents and leaders thought was best for the public schools.

He would hold forums and community meetings and roll out a strategic plan for public education in New Jersey’s largest city, promising more accountability and higher expectations for the schools and their students.

“For Newark Public Schools,” his plan would say, “it is a down payment on turning around our school system.”

Yesterday, as Newark Mayor Cory Booker launched Partnership for Education in Newark, or PENewark, a public campaign on behalf of Newark schools and their $100 million Facebook gift, Janey sat in the front row among the VIPs – a tad bittersweet that his term would end so soon.

“You come into this work from a high-risk, high-reward context,” Janey said afterward, with some resignation. “It happens.”

A Common Vision

Its new offices located in a former furniture store on Market Street, PENewark plans to hold meetings across the city to develop a common vision for the public schools and for the Facebook endowment, Booker said.

“That is what brings us here right now, the profound knowledge that we can do so much better,” the mayor said in opening the hour-long launch event. “We actually have a higher calling, to show this nation what is possible in urban education.”

That was not terribly different from what Janey said a year earlier, after his first year on the job, as the new superintendent unveiled his “Great Expectations” strategic plan for the schools.

Laid out as a four-year plan, Janey’s 59-page document included calls and strategies for raising the professional standards for teachers, transforming high schools with higher expectations for students and building stronger community and national partnerships.

Janey presented nearly 100 “first-year actions” to take place immediately, from inventory and alignment of curriculum to new voicemail and email systems for keeping parents informed.

Of course, Gov. Chris Christie within the year would tell Janey that he would not be rehired next year. The Facebook money provided a symbolic fresh start for the district, and Christie said it would be one made under a new superintendent whom Booker would help hire.

A Key Starting Point

But while he remains in office, Janey’s strategic plan and the process of developing it were held up yesterday as an important starting point.

“The greatest outcome from the strategic plan was that it honestly assessed where our students are,” said Kathleen Nugent of Democrats for Education Reform, an advocacy group closely tied to the PENewark campaign.

“Honesty is a prerequisite for reform,” she continued, quoting data from Janey’s plan. “Only 38% of our incoming freshmen are on track to graduate in four years and about half are graduating now. These are tremendous challenges that the next superintendent needs to understand. The plan is a strong foundation from which to move forward.”

The audience seemed to appreciate that Janey would leave a legacy in his short time here, as the superintendent drew maybe the biggest applause among the introductions.

How long he’ll be around is still uncertain, since Booker and Christie have said a new superintendent would not be named until the public engagement campaign was completed, slated for around January.

On the Podium

Yesterday, Janey himself made little mention of his plans as he rides out his term. As Booker this time took a seat, Janey was invited to the podium and offered his own advice, one of collaboration and engagement beyond just an eight-week window.

“Education is much more nuanced than just the announcement or pronouncement of accountability, standards and choice,” he said. “Our work is in fact messy, and that’s precisely why we need the tenor of this event today to set the tenor of what’s ahead of us.”

Janey closed with rhetoric to match the mayor’s, making his first reference to the fact he would likely not be around to see his strategic plan come to fruition.

“Newark, we’re standing up with a voice and a powerful resonance that we will be heard and not denied,” he said. “Thank you very much, and I am with you and will always be so, wherever I am next year.”