What Newark Really Thinks About its Public Schools

John Mooney | May 12, 2011 | Education
Newly released study discloses a complex mosaic of opinions and perceptions

The din that seemed to surround Newark over the past few months made it hard to tell what New Jersey’s largest city thinks of its public schools. Community meetings have been raucous, to say the least, with no shortage of loud, angry voices.

If there were any consensus, it was likely that no one was particularly happy.

But more quietly over much the same period, researchers from Rutgers-Newark and New York University have been compiling residents’ opinions through surveys and at dozens of smaller community forums.

And in a report released today, the consensus is largely that there is no consensus when it comes to Newark’s schools, traditional and charter. Instead, the survey found a complex mosaic of opinions and perceptions about the schools now at the center of the state’s and even the nation’s attention. At times, the opinions track urban geography and race. At other times, they clash and contradict.

“Although there was a great deal of agreement that there is a need for significant improvement, it is less clear that there is a consensus as to how to improve,” said Alan Sadovnik, one of the lead researchers and co-director of the Newark Schools Research Collaborative at Rutgers-Newark.

By and large, the survey did find a general dissatisfaction with the Newark Public School district, but less discontent when respondents were asked about their individual neighborhood schools.

North and East Ward schools were perceived as higher quality, while the Central, South and West Wards were seen as less so. To some degree the perceptions reflected racial concerns: The North and East Wards are home to much of the city’s Hispanic and Portuguese population; the other wards are predominately African-American.

And while charter schools get some kudos, they are also perceived as having special advantages as to who teaches, who attends and who stays. And that’s among those who know something about charters. A striking two-thirds of all respondents said they had little or no knowledge of the alternative schools that have grabbed much of the political and media attention.

“While we saw there were a few issues with [charters], we have to recognize that few people really knew much about charters in relation to traditional schools,” said Edward Fergus, deputy director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University.

The report was the culmination of an outreach effort funded through the $100 million gift to Newark schools from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, part of a $1 million public outreach campaign that went through its own fits and starts before recruiting the university researchers to undertake their own surveys and compile the results.

But beyond just the surveys, maybe some of the most interesting findings came out of the community forums that have been held across the city over the past few months, organized by PENewark, the original group funded with the Zuckerberg money. PENewark also sponsored the final report.

In the first compilation of responses from those meetings, some general themes emerged, with the voices putting a human face to the survey numbers.

Among them was the sense that resources still seem short, even in a district that spends close to $20,000 per student and is a frequent target of Gov. Chris Christie’s condemnations of profligate spending.

Here are just a few of the compiled quotes about building conditions, programs and other money-driven issues:

  • “We don’t have computer rooms. We don’t have libraries. So you can’t even implement a whole-hearted, well rounded curriculum in Newark public schools. At Dayton Street they may have an art room but they don‘t have a computer room. And then at Ridge Street they don’t have a library, and you have an art teacher carrying art supplies in a book bag and there’s no music classes.”
  • “Went to one school, there was no toilet paper in the bathroom. There were rats. At [school], the rats had names. Seriously.”
  • Yet, it wasn’t just money. There were extensive comments about the quality of teachers, the need for more accountability. But there also was praise for those that take the extra steps with a child.

    One parent of a special needs child described the work that helped her son, both the craft and the art of teaching that sometimes gets lost in the debates over how to evaluate teachers:

  • “They’re with him…. So he sits there and the teacher works with him. She gets it done, she knows how to get it done when he shuts down. So she learns to work around that. She knows how to deal with it and she’s gotten him to learn so much that he’s been learning to spell big words on his own.”
  • Still, even teachers themselves said that evaluation process can improve:

  • “It is important that we get an objective evaluation because that tells us where our performance needs to improve, where it needs to stay the same, and it also give us the opportunity to cultivate relationships with those individuals and those organizations. Inevitably, we‘re going to need their support as we try to implement new programs across the board.
  • In the end, there was little agreement on the specifics of reforms, with general agreement on better teaching and leadership. The idea of paying better teachers more money drew some support, as did more access to afterschool programs.

    In one section of the survey, participants were asked to pick from a range of options as to what they thought most important in improving traditional schools. The top two responses: giving principals more control, followed closely by replacing principals in low-performing schools.

    All this will be for Newark’s new superintendent to digest, with Christie last week naming New York City school official Cami Anderson to be the next leader of the state-operated district. She starts in early June, and the survey provided a few nuggets of personal advice.

    For one, she comes to a city where there is little affection for the state’s oversight of the district. Close to 90 percent of those surveyed said local control should be returned. Less than 40 percent support any kind of mayoral control, either direct or through appointing the school board.

    For another, respondents wanted the superintendent to be someone who was a strong academic leader. After that, Anderson is advised to pay attention to her constituents: The next highest response was for someone with a knowledge of the district. Someone who works well with parents and the community was next on the list.

    Sadovnik, the Rutgers researcher, said its good advice.

    “Particularly after what has transpired over the past few months,” he said, “we decided the only recommendation we made is that we need to move forward with far less contention and with community engagement fully part of the process.”