Education Reform: Newark’s Other Voices

John Mooney | January 11, 2011 | Education
Newark's other education non-profits stand clear of the shadow -- or glare -- of the Facebook Fund

While the $100 million Facebook gift to Newark schools gets most of the attention, a few other education foundations are sprouting up – and speaking out — in New Jersey’s largest school district.

Yesterday, the Chad School Foundation held a press conference in the Newark Museum to announce its $1 million fund to provide scholarship help to students and policy help to the district and its neighbors. The non-profit was born out of the popular Newark private school by the same name that closed in 2005.

The Newark Education Trust is another new fund that’s bringing its own share of high-powered benefactors. It will be what is known as a “local education fund,” akin to those in 32 other states and three New Jersey cities that serve as community-based advocacy groups.

Both foundations say they will fill needed roles in the city to help its nearly $1 billion school system. But what else they have in common is the challenge of defining themselves against the high-octane effort surrounding the $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

The leaders of each group stressed they don’t see competition with that larger effort, which is being led by Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and noted they may see some partnerships coming.

Leaders of the Zuckerberg effort, known as Partnership for Education in Newark (PENewark), were on hand for the Chad event yesterday, one of them serving as emcee.

But each also acknowledged there is also only so much philanthropic money out there, and the $1 million of the Zuckerberg money committed to just its public campaign is nearly as much as these other funds have in their entire budgets.

“We’re carving a place for ourselves,” said Reginald Lewis, executive director of the Chad School Foundation.

“But there is a fear, a legitimate fear, that we’ll be so distracted by all the attention and the glamour of the Zuckerberg money,” he said, “that we’ll lose sight of some of the things that are already working.” The head of the Newark Education Trust said his group and its money, contributed thus far from the Prudential Foundation, the Victoria Foundation and the Schumann Fund, will serve as “an independent voice for change in the city.”

Alluding to the Zuckerberg gift’s planned five-year payout, “we’ll also be a permanent group that won’t just fade away after five years,” said Ross Danis, a former Drew University associate dean who will serve as the fund’s first executive director.

Danis agreed it will be a challenge for the trust to articulate its mission against those of the other groups and especially PENewark. “But if ever there was a need for a group to align the district’s resources, it is now,” he said.

The Chad group took great pains to articulate its plans yesterday, drawing nearly 100 friends and supporters to the hour-long presentation that was a celebration of both the Chad School’s 35-year existence and its legacy now carried forward in the new fund.

“If the Chad method is brought to scale, the crisis in our public schools would be abated,” said William Payne, the former state assemblyman who is the group’s board chairman.

Specifically, the group will have twin programs: the Chad Scholars Program, offering four-year, $10,000 scholarships for college, and the Chad Policy Roundtable, a research effort centering on core issues facing the schools in Newark, as well as the Oranges and Irvington.

One leader of the new group said this effort will be especially distinct from PENewark, which is conducting its own research into operations and impressions in Newark schools.

“We will be more outside the system, acting as responsible critics in ways that they [PENewark] don’t have,” said Robert Curvin, a former Ford Foundation executive serving on the Chad board.

“It’s a very, very different role that is not being filled in Newark or in many places across the country,” he said.

On hand for the presentation were leaders from some of Newark’s charter schools, which presumably would benefit from all the reform talk — and money — falling on the city’s education system.

But they agreed it was a wait and see on all of it, as the confluence of groups seeks to sort itself out.

“We’re not sure what it means yet,” said Karen Thomas, head of the Marion P. Thomas Charter School. “For one, I think the attention is good for us in the community.”

“It’s matter of people having the heart to work together,” she said. “I’m optimistic. For a long time, nobody was even talking to each other.”