A District in Transition Awaits Superintendent Anderson

John Mooney | June 13, 2011 | Education
A slew of new charters, a controversial consolidation plan take care of the first two days

Camden Middle School is a good example of the kind of challenges — and uncertainties — that await Cami Anderson on her first day as Newark’s superintendent of schools.

The school, like the 39,000-student district, is in transition. Last year, less than half its students passed the state tests. This fall, it is moving in with Camden Street Elementary School next door, to form a single K-8 facility.

Replacing it will be three new high schools: the Bard High School Early College, New Day Charter School and People’s Prep Charter. And with them come new teachers and new families.

“I’m a little scared,” said Aida Crespo, the mother of a 14-year-old daughter who will be attending People’s Prep. “I know the area, I know the way the school used to be. But I think it will be better. We’ll see.”

That sort of nervousness will likely greet Anderson as she starts her $240,000-a-year post.

Stepping into a district in the national spotlight, she has said her job the first few months will be to listen and learn. But there are a number of initiatives already underway that will greet her at the door of the district’s Cedar Street headquarters, leaving her little time to get acclimated.

A day into the job, a controversial consolidation plan for combining some district schools and sharing others with charter schools will be one of the first orders of business for Anderson as she meets with the district’s local advisory board on Tuesday.

The proposed plan is expected to be publicly released today, but some of the details emerged in he past week, including the sharing of the old Camden Middle among two charters and the new district high school, Bard.

In addition, the three other district high schools will open as initially planned, one on Washington Street next to Rutgers University, a second in the Newark Vocational School and a third whose location is undecided, according to the latest proposal.

In all, five charters will also open next fall in district buildings. In addition to People’s Prep and New Day’s arrangement, Thirteenth Avenue School will share space with a charter school part of the North Star Academy network. The Burnet Street School will share with the new Great Oaks Charter School. And the Dayton Street School will share with the existing Lady Liberty Charter School.

Many of the details came out of a round of community meetings held across the city last Wednesday to introduce the new “shared campus” configurations to the families that will attend them.

Crespo and her daughter, Evalise, attended the session at Camden Middle, where about 30 families gathered in the school’s library to go over enrollment information. Virtually all were there for the People’s Prep , a college preparatory school that will start out with about 100 students.

Staying with Charters

A good number of the students were coming from other charter schools in the city that only went up to eighth grade, saying they had good experiences so far with the charters and wanted to stay with them.

In Crespo’s case, the main option for her daughter was the city’s Barringer High School, and to the mother, that was no option. “I would have moved,” she said.

“I just think the charters care more,” Aida Crespo said from her daughter’s experience at the Maria Varisco Charter School. “They didn’t let them get away with anything. Homework, grades, nothing.”

Another parent, with three of her five children in Newark charter schools, said the size matters most.

“It’s about preparing for college, and with the small group, they just give her more individualized attention,” said Darlene Marsh, whose daughter Caressa was also enrolling at People’s Prep.

“In the public school, there are too many children, too much going on,” she said.

And as for sharing with another school, Marsh said she was aware it had been a controversial idea but wasn’t too worried. “It’s just a building,” she said.

Not attending the meeting were those who would be leaving, including Camden Middle principal LeContee Hill. She said it will be sad to the leave the school, but said the new combination with Camden Street Elementary will work well.

And she said she looked forward to the new superintendent, with some curiosity.

“But it’s a good curiosity,” she said. “We need someone ready to go. I don’t think we need to throw everything out, but we do need some things to be done.”