Newark’s New School Superintendent in Her Own Words

John Mooney | May 9, 2011 | Education
Cami Anderson says she'll be doing a lot of listening to the people in Newark's classrooms -- students and teachers

Credit: Tim Larsen/Governor's Office
Cami Anderson (right), Newark's new superintendent of schools
Cami Anderson is not short on opinions as to what she can do for Newark public schools as their new superintendent.

Although just 39 years old, Anderson has had a rich life (and has put together an equally rich ), from growing up in a large, multiracial family to her current work as senior superintendent of New York City’s District 79 — a collection of alternative programs for students in jail, dropping out or otherwise not successful in traditional settings.

After meeting Newark students at Science Park High School on Wednesday, she shared with the press some of the lessons from that life and from the schools now under her charge since Gov. Chris Christie announced her appointment.

She spoke broadly about her management style and education philosophy to specific topics like charter schools and union relations. Here are excerpts, in her own words:

First words and students’ advice

I was honored and humbled and a little nervous prior to meeting these students [at Science Park] who gave me incredible advice and put me very much at ease. They made it sound so very easy: “Just get out in the schools, remember it is about us, keep your head down, stay focused and don’t listen to the noise.” Perfect.

“Two unshakeable beliefs”

One is I always see things through young people and teachers. It is just who I am. I would have stayed in that classroom for another hour if I could have and listened very carefully, not because it’s what I’m supposed to do but because it will make me a better superintendent. And second, all kids deserve to have the full range of life choices, every single student regardless of circumstances should have the skills they can attain to make the choice they want, whether career or college.

Working with District 79 students

Many people think that adults are too old to change and that a 16-year-old reading at a fifth-grade level cannot change, but I fundamentally reject that and know it is not true. I could not have been more honored and thrilled to take on that challenge. I did not see this as the quote “worst district in the country.” I saw it as an awesome place where a lot of leaders were waiting to be channeled into greatness.

Working with District 79 adults

I asked them, of the 10 things we think we could be doing great, where do we give ourselves an A? All 10 things? Two, one? And the honest answer that came out of the discussion, and these were all great teachers and principals, they said two or three. I said, “Guess what, how motivating is that?” So I said, “Let’s go do seven more. And when we’re doing 10 out of 10 things right and we’re still not achieving the results we want, well, then we can go have a beer or green tea and lament it. But right now, here’s the great thing, there are seven more things we could be doing right, and we know those seven things can have a huge difference in the lives of kids.” That was very motivating and made me feel I was in the right place at District 79.

Lessons of Science Park High School

I have seen the kind of teachers and teaching that calls students to higher performance. I saw it today, in this amazing school. And the young people were very clear: “We perform here because our teachers expect us to, and because our peers expect us to.” When you hear that and see it and know it can happen in a few places, there is no excuse for it not to happen everywhere.

Life experience

My parents are both civil servants and they raised 12 kids. My family is multiracial, and many of my siblings joined us because of unthinkable challenges that made it really hard for them to be placed in adoptive settings. The 14 of us certainly had our ups and downs, and when I hear the word argument, I’m no stranger to argument. Nine of us within three years of each other, and those arguments were robust and vociferous. But we all learned how to support each other through really tough times, and expect the best for every single person in my family. Suffice to say, there are very few challenges faced by the students in District 79 that I have not also faced in my own family. My belief in the potential for every Newark student is based on those life lessons.

My own family makes me look at the statistics of Newark in a different way. I don’t see 55 percent of students graduating in Newark as some faceless number — and actually it’s more like 20 percent when you think about the more rigorous diploma. I literally see the faces of my brothers and sisters who overcame so many challenges in their own lives.

Not about dreams and heroes

I am less interested in big promises than I am in results. I don’t believe in lonely heroes winning the day. I actually believe in teams. It’s the athlete in me, but I am a team person. Education is not an individual sport. And while I may be no hero, I do have one real strength and that is helping others — whether students, teachers or leaders — do their best work. I have a proven track record in managing people to perform at very high levels.

“Newark is not an experiment”

I am less interested in experimenting than in bringing to scale what we know works. I am more interested in results than fads, and I am interested in working with leaders here like this principal who is incredibly inspirational, and anyone who has proven results with children.

What’s first

We all know the things that matter are the quality of the teachers and the leaders in the building. Period. So we need to do everything we can to get great people and to support folks and dig deep to take everything to the next level. It sounds small, but people want the trains to run on time. It matters enormously that we build a district that provides excellent service and follows through. Plain and simple. A district that is responsive to families and engages a community.

I can say a lot more about the specifics, but I actually plan to start this work by listening. There are a lot of people in Newark who have done great work, and I have every intention to squeeze every single lesson out of them that they are willing to share. Students, teachers, families, the community of Newark, there are incredible lessons to be gleaned from the heroes who are here right now, and I stand on their shoulders and can’t wait to work with them.

Current state of Newark schools

The statistics are well known: 55 percent of Newark students graduate, and of that, close to 20 percent are at the level we all would want in terms of college readiness and 98 percent have to take remedial courses when they go to college. So we have a lot of room to grow. What’s hopeful to me are places like Science Park, where close to 100 percent of students graduate — same students, same challenging circumstances. For me, the basics are to make every school more like Science Park than the ones that are getting 20 percent. There are no short cuts to that, but there are lots of ways to get there.

Charter schools’ place in the mix

It’s all about great schools that get results. I’m not going to presume a mix, but in District 79 to give you a sense of my track record, some things we closed because we felt the results were so failing, children and their lives were literally at stake. Certain things we reinvented, reinvigorated, invested more resources, reorganized them and got new curriculum. And certain things we started from scratch, including some new programs, a network of charter schools that I worked with a team of people to help dream up. We need multiple pathways, and to me it’s not about the percentage in the pie chart but that we have great schools for every kid.

Union relations and Newark’s stalled contract talks

I think it’s a huge opportunity, and I think we have a real chance to work together and find common ground and come up with a contract that puts kids at the core and also supports the most important people in the room and that is the teachers and those who support the educators. I really look forward to sitting down and figuring out where there are points of common passion and have every confidence that we will. I have a solid track record in New York City. The head of the [American Federation of Teachers] had a quote about me in the paper about how it was bumpy. These things are never easy. But my style is to look for where people are aligned, and that is certainly around what is best for kids. We have a chance to create something together that will be a real step forward for Newark kids.

How long will it take to see change?

You need to look at each school. The students said it perfectly, “Go out to each school, see what’s happening. Talk to the educators, look at the data, and figure out a plan forward.” To me it’s a school-by-school proposition. Some will be faster than others. Certainly I am committed to staying the course as long as it takes to make every one of them good and excellent schools.