Anderson Only Pushes Change so Far on First Day as Newark Super

John Mooney | June 14, 2011 | Education
Several controversial school closings are not part of the plan -- at least for now

Credit: Annie Knox/NJ Spotlight
Not wasting much time, Cami Anderson’s first big announcement as Newark’s new superintendent may have been as much about what she didn’t say as what she did.

Anderson stepped into the job yesterday morning amid a swirl of media attention, and promptly announced a series of sweeping changes to the state’s largest school district. Many had been set in motion by both her predecessor and the Christie administration, which ultimately runs the state-operated district.

Included in her plans are the opening of four new high schools and the expansion of seven charter schools into district buildings. These won’t be easy wins in themselves, with the head of the Newark Teachers Union (NTU) last night threatening a legal challenge.

But almost as noteworthy was what was not contained in the three-page press release. This included several pieces of the reorganization that had been initially planned and are among the most contentious of all.

Among them were the closing of two Central Ward elementary schools and the shifting of students in Barringer High School, arguably the district’s most troubled, and the use of its 9th grade building for two new specialized schools. In a draft plan leaked to the public in February, 11 charter schools in all were planned for district buildings, and 11 district schools were proposed for consolidation or closing.

Executing on the Plan

“We’re picking a number of things that we can execute well,” Anderson said in her first press conference as superintendent, held at the Brick Avon Elementary School. “We wanted to be sure not only that they were good for the community but that we were ready on.”

She said of the two spared Central Ward schools, Quitman and Eighteenth Avenue, that she wanted to give them time under reforms started by her predecessor, Clifford Janey. And she said Barringer needed a “comprehensive plan” before she would decide its fate.

Anderson’s announcement last month to hold back on two new district high schools, was applauded for its restraint by some city activists who had strenuously opposed the initial plans. At the same time they also took a great deal of credit for the new superintendent’s decision.

A coalition banded against much of the Christie administration’s early plans for the district in the wake of the $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote its members a note of congratulations yesterday.

“This is a victory for the parents, students, and educators of Newark, and especially those within the Coalition,” read the note released by Junius Williams, a leader of the Coalition for Effective Newark Schools. “Even though we shall continue to fight for the remainder of our demands, we must consider this a victory.”

And Anderson didn’t deny it, saying the decisions were “an example where the engagement worked. This is a process to gain feedback, and it worked.”

Anderson said more would come, acknowledging even the scaled-back “shared campus” plan with charters will face its detractors. And she was right, as Williams’ coalition was just one of the groups and individuals saying they remained opposed to any co-location.

A Possible Lawsuit

Joseph DelGrosso, president of the Newark Teachers Union, said he was not ruling out a lawsuit similar to that filed in New York City over co-locations in its public schools. He plans to meet on the topic — as well as others — with Anderson at the union’s Broad Street headquarters tomorrow. The Newark local advisory board is also slated to take up some of the charter leases at its meeting tonight.

“We’ll talk about it on Wednesday, but we’ll do whatever we can to stop it,” he said. “And if they insist on being there, we’ll make it as unpleasant as possible for them. There won’t be peaceful coexistence like they think it will be.”

There was tepid response from leaders of the Newark municipal council as well, which called a press conference in the afternoon to release the results of education hearings they had held this winter.

Leading the presentation was Ras Baraka, the outspoken South Ward councilman who also happens to be principal of Central High School. He didn’t aim all his criticism at Anderson, saying many of the plans were put in motion before she was hired. But he said still more public input was required.

“To make such decisions in a cavalier manner to me is disrespectful,” he said.

“She came into a situation where this was already happening,” Baraka continued.
“Now we’re asking her to come straighten it out, and if she is the school leader we need her to be, she’ll talk to people in the community.”