Newark Schools Start to Put $100 Million Gift to Work

John Mooney, Education writer | September 22, 2011 | Education
One-year anniversary of Zuckerberg largesse hasn't lessened the challenges in state's largest school district

A year ago, the announcement of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to Newark public schools was held in a hotel ballroom, replete with TV cameras and visiting dignitaries.

Yesterday, its one-year anniversary was celebrated in the cramped library of a Newark elementary school — sans Zuckerberg and many of the other visitors.

The century-old setting reflects the hard realities of Newark, and all the good the gift could bring.

There have already been some accomplishments to mark. The first $7.4 million of the money is going out, the latest for a $600,000 innovative teacher fund that will offer $10,000 grants to individual teachers. A local foundation is in place to manage the funds, and the required matching contributions now total $47 million. And there has been no shortage of pledges to transparency and community involvement.

“I really have a great confidence that this will start a great year, two years, three and four for the benefit of the children and families of our city,” said Mayor Cory Booker, who initially attracted the gift in a meeting with Zuckerberg and has been its biggest cheerleader since.

Trying Not to Overpromise

But how the money will be translated into the schools is a work in progress, and even the most ardent supporters yesterday were trying not to overpromise.

“While I know the expectations are high, I want to remind folks that $200 million is a quarter of the annual operating budget of the Newark schools, said Greg Taylor, president and chief executive of the Foundation for Newark’s Future, the foundation set up to raise the matching funds and administer the money.

So far, the money disbursed is more strategic than transformative, aimed at specific programs like new alternative high schools and charter schools that operate outside the district’s control and under agreement with the state.

“But money won’t do this alone, and we know that we will need to work in partnership,” Taylor said, pledging the formation of a community advisory board in the coming months.

A big partner is the district’s new superintendent, Cami Anderson, who is 100 days on the job today and said a couple of times that the district is making its own strides, separate from anything the foundation is paying for. A relatively smooth opening of the school year, no small feat, was among them and duly noted by others.

Anderson said the private money does help fund what she called “out of the box ideas,” like the district’s new parent call center ($400,000) and financial and data audits ($500,000) that she said will pave the way for more direct funding of classroom improvement.

Yet the day-to-day operation of the schools is trickier, more beholden to law, regulations and contracts that are slower to change. Anderson has put in place a new personnel system that eases the way for the hiring and assignment of teachers, with more than 300 new teachers hired for this year.

Other Obstacles

But other obstacles still stand in the way. For instance, while $1 million in Zuckerberg money is slated for extending the school day and year, negotiations in a teachers’ union contract that would lay out how that is accomplished district-wide remains at formal impasse.

Even smaller labor agreements for extended scheduling in specific schools funded through separate federal grants have yet to be agreed upon with the Newark Teachers Union, she acknowledged.

New Jersey’s acting education commissioner Chris Cerf, who plays a central role in the state-run district and who hand-picked Anderson for the super’s slot, played down the labor issues and said those would be left to closed-door negotiation with the union.

But Cerf has seen the battles, too, and acknowledged as much from the months leading up to Anderson’s selection last spring when public meetings were raucous and the school community was gripped by uncertainty, if not distrust.

“There has been a cacophony and moments of stress and tension,” he said yesterday. “And yet what is emerging from this process is something that is truly great and inspiring.”

“There is an incredible aligning of the stars here to do something truly special here,” Cerf continued. “It will take some courage, it will take some tough moments and stripes on our backs. But it is happening and will happen.”

Not Flush with Cash

Yet even spending close to $1 billion this year, Newark schools hardly appear flush with cash. Case in point is the school that hosted yesterday’s event, the Harriet Tubman Elementary School in the city’s Central Ward.

It is one of the superstars of the district, held up as a model for others, and indeed both its climate and its test scores reflect that standing. In a tour of the building beforehand, classes appeared animated and engaged, with uniformed children explaining their work to the school’s sudden maelstrom of visitors.

But standing outside the presentation yesterday, PTO president Natasha Akinyele didn’t take long to come up with a ready list of needs. The building itself is a remnant of another century, its gym, auditorium and cafeteria all in one, she said. Technology is limited — “no Smartboards here” — and it’s been seven years since parents started asking for a playground.

Actually, Akinyele was meeting with a playground consultant at the school yesterday, before running into the crowd in the hallway. The playground would be funded with the help of City Councilman Darrin Sharif, she said, unrelated to the $100,000 earmarked for playgrounds so far in the Zuckerberg money.

“We need to be able to let our children go outside,” said Akinyele, who has two sons in the school.

She also said the school lost a technology teacher and a science teacher last year, and hasn’t had a visual arts teacher for several years. Class sizes in some grades rose to 30 students, she said. That’s improving this year — a new arts teacher is on the way — but class sizes are still pretty big, said the mother of two.

Don’t get her wrong. Akinyele said Harriet Tubman is a “wonderful school” and she’s proud of all that it has accomplished. The attention yesterday was nice, too. It’s just for all the talk of money in the schools — not to mention Zuckerberg’s largesse — Akinyele said it hasn’t made Harriet Tubman rich, at least not yet.

“We are still scrambling to stretch 50 cents into a dollar,” she said.