New Newark Superintendent Takes Quiet First Steps into Restive City

John Mooney | June 2, 2011 | Education
Even before starting, Cami Anderson's doubts about alternative high schools in Newark captures the attention of potential critics

Credit: Tim Larsen/Governor's Office
Cami Anderson (right), Newark's new superintendent of schools
The Rev. William Howard got the message midweek from the newcomer to Newark that she would like to come worship at his Central Ward church the following Sunday.

Just days after she was announced Newark’s new school superintendent, Cami Anderson arrived with her family for the 10 a.m. Mother’s Day service, Howard said, where the pastor introduced them to his congregation at the Bethany Baptist Church.

“I didn’t get to speak to her, but I noticed she spoke to a few members of the congregation,” said Howard yesterday.

And so began the community outreach of New Jersey’s most-watched educator, as Anderson quietly prepared to take the helm of the state’s largest and arguably most challenging district.

Making it Official

Anderson’s appointment by Gov. Chris Christie became official yesterday, as the state Board of Education approved the nomination with no dissent and little public discussion. She is slated to start June 13, a week later than previously announced.

An approximately $240,000-a-year contract has yet to be finalized, but board president Arcelio Aponte said his members were in agreement that the former New York City school administrator brought ample qualifications to the district and deserved their support.

“Everyone was very fond of her,” Aponte said.

Gaining the same affection in the Newark community at large may be a tougher task, after what was a rancorous lead-up to Anderson’s appointment, not even accounting for the long-festering resentment over the state’s operation of the district.

So, in the wake of Christie’s announcement a month ago, one of Anderson’s early meetings was at the downtown New Jersey Performing Arts Center restaurant with Joseph Del Grosso, the president of the Newark Teachers Union (NTU) who was reelected to his ninth term yesterday.

Anderson wouldn’t be interviewed for this article, but DelGrosso yesterday called the hour-long introduction a “cordial meeting, a good meeting. She’s certainly enthusiastic, I’ll say that.”

But he and others said there are a number of issues that will hit early and often, including his stalled teachers contract talks. But there are also looming budget deliberations, impending and controversial school consolidation plans and ongoing tensions over charter schools, to name just a few.

“My advice to her is you have a lot of legwork to do,” Del Grosso said. “If she doesn’t want to get lambasted, she’s going to have build bridges and get out there to talk to people.”

Picking Up Points

By most accounts, she did gain some local points before even starting the job, when last month in a joint statement with the state Department of Education (DOE), Anderson announced she planned to pull back on the state’s initial plans to open six alternative high schools next fall, saying all of them weren’t ready.

The schools had been controversial, and Anderson, who headed the alternative high school district in New York City, said three of them may still open if “first-rate principals” can be found in time.

But the fact that she hedged at all on the state’s previously announced intentions heartened some community leaders who had been skeptical that she would be no more than a subordinate to Christie and his acting education commissioner, Chris Cerf.

Funding for the high schools was among the first initiatives coming out of the $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

After Anderson’s page-long written announcement, one email widely circulated among community activists and leaders started: “WOW! that’s impressive. she just may have her own mind.”

“To me, it was a gutsy move for someone not even here yet,” said Wilhemina Holder, another long-time activist.

Still, the fate of the high schools is yet to shake out, with a decision imminent on three pending schools. And Holder said there are also summer schools to launch, new so-called turnaround efforts to unveil, and personnel to get in place for next fall.

“She is going to have a lot on her plate and very little time to get it right,” Holder said. “She’s coming into a tough situation.”

Howard, the Bethany pastor, said he was hopeful for the new superintendent but agreed she has some trust to earn.

“I think early on, she’ll have to show she’s an independent individual who can build relationships with her constituency,” Howard said. “If she’s an independent professional person with a willingness to listen, if that comes through early, she’ll be given some space.”