Cami Anderson: Little Time for Politics

Newark's new superintendent maintains a rigorous schedule -- including working breakfasts, candidate interviews and community meetings -- while others debate her place

Credit: Annie Knox/NJ Spotlight
On the day the Newark school board voted formally to contest the state’s ongoing control of the district, the newly appointed superintendent who epitomizes that control had a busy schedule.

“It’s actually a pretty typical day,” Cami Anderson said yesterday afternoon, her schedule printed out in color-coded blocks before her.

Starting with a private breakfast with a community leader, Anderson’s day included interviewing finalists for two principal jobs, meetings with two assistant superintendents and her “instructional cabinet,” lunch with a board member, and a another meeting with an internal task force charged with a smooth opening of schools in three weeks.

And then at 6 p.m., it was off to the advisory board meeting at Science Park High School, where her presence as Gov. Chris Christie’s choice to lead New Jersey’s largest school system was a central point of contention.

While the board discussed a resolution to challenge the takeover, Anderson gave an update on her own plans for the district. At a community meeting in the South Ward the night before, she said she would leave those decisions of control to others.

“We don’t need to wait for those decisions, and it’s not mine anyway,” she said. “My job is to be laserly focused on making sure our children are college- and career-ready.”

And by most accounts, she’s diving headlong into the job, under the scrutiny of not just Newark and the state but of the nation as well, thanks to the $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Achievement and Operations

In an hour-long interview in her 10th floor conference room at the district’s downtown headquarters yesterday, Anderson described her first months on the job with an unflinching self-confidence in her ability to improve the district both in terms of achievement and operations.

“I can make a system hum like nobody else,” she said at one point, describing the systems she is putting in place to keep principals accountable and on track.

She spent as much time explaining her specific plans as her vision, a stickler for details and strategy. She described how the colors in her schedule represent her five priorities: leadership, teacher quality, operations, community and innovation. All, she said point back to student achievement.

“I’m ruthless in how I spend my time,” she said. “It is easy to get very focused on reacting and being busy 24/7, but in the end I don’t want to be where I haven’t moved any of the big rocks.”

Her tenure has started with changes to leadership positions, the first wave for any new superintendent. In addition to bringing in a cadre of her own assistants, including new personnel and budget directors, she is hiring principals in 12 of Newark’s 75 schools — four of their successors dismissed, the rest filling vacancies.

She said that is where she has devoted most of her time so far, and spent five minutes describing the interview process, including case studies of hypothetical schools, role-playing, and trial teacher observations (by video).

Alternative History

Hired from New York City, where she was regional superintendent in charge of alternative high schools, Anderson said she’s feeling confident of her choices so far, but the deals are not yet closed. Ten of the 12 are either picked or close, she said.

“If one thing I’ve learned in my career — and I’ve hired a lot of principals – is anyone can put on a good show, but after seeing them in their own element, the next best thing is simulating real time,” she said. “It’s an extensive process, and we’ll end up with a good pool.”

And she said a side benefit was also a new group of what she called “emerging leaders,” about a dozen assistant principals or other supervisors not picked for principal positions but who showed promise and will continue to be tracked and supported until they are ready.

For both new and existing principals, Anderson said she has also begun a series of “training days” this summer, in which they will all be brought together to focus on one major issue at a time: student achievement data, teacher observation, planning for professional development and operational details. The first meeting with principals was held on Wednesday.

Teacher hiring has been a little trickier, and she is still filling positions with a few short weeks to opening. Part of that process has been Anderson’s development of a separate pool of teachers who had been “excessed” from closed schools or due to declining enrollment, some of whom will be rehired into classrooms.

In the past they would have likely just been reassigned, whether the new principal wanted them or not, but Anderson instituted a personnel policy that will cut down on such so-called “forced placements.”

Good News, Bad News

“The good news and the bad news: there are good people in there, and the principals will pick them up,” Anderson said. “The bad news is we’ll be left with some lesser ones.”

Right now, there are one hundred teachers in that pool, estimated to cost Newark $10 million a year if they remain in limbo. That number is expected to come down, but Anderson nevertheless called the tighter hiring and transfer system a “good investment” for the district’s long-term improvement.
That still leaves several entries on her list of five priorities, with “community” coming next. Anderson convened the first of a half-dozen community meetings Wednesday night.

Held at Belmont-Runyon School, close to one hundred people filtered in for what was a cordial and casual exchange, delving into the details of school lunches and student schedules.

One center of attention was Anderson’s own 18-month son, Sampson, whom she brought to the meeting and who lightened the mood.

After a brief introduction, she answered a good dozen questions over the course of the next hour, many focused on the schools in the South Ward, which are among the city’s most troubled. She agreed with one parent, that student safety matters as much as learning in schools wracked by violence.

A couple of times, it got testy, especially with some community activists critical of the state’s control in the first place. But Anderson repeatedly asked them to give her a chance. She acknowledged it will take time, and many more meetings like this one.

“I know respect is earned, and I can promise it won’t be a one-shot thing,” she said.