Rough Start for Newark Super’s School Reorganization Strategy

John Mooney | February 6, 2012 | Education
Next up: Superintendent takes plans for closings and other changes to the neighborhoods

Cami Anderson’s proposal for a sweeping reorganization of Newark public schools had by her own admission a rough opening night on Friday, when the Newark superintendent faced a heckling crowd in unveiling the plan.

But the bigger test may be in the weeks ahead as she goes into the wards and neighborhoods where her plans will play out, many of them among the city’s most beleaguered districts.

It’s not an easy sell, to be sure. She is proposing closing seven schools that face the double whammy of being under-enrolled and poorly performing.

Some of the seats may be supplied by charter schools, which have their own mixed history in the city. All of this feeds into a feeling of mistrust that Anderson must overcome for her plan to succeed.

But some of her plan also includes expanding programs in those same neighborhoods, especially preschool activities.

Anderson has proposed extending preschool in the South and West Wards, including a new early childhood center in the old Speedway School, and doubling the size of the Clinton Avenue center. She also has proposed expanding and opening up the city’s magnet high schools, considered among the gems of the district.

Still, most of Anderson’s growth strategy was lost on Friday night, when she went before an audience gathered at the Rutgers-Newark student center and was greeted by far more jeers than cheers. The meeting lasted just 45 minutes, cut short without the question and answer session that she said she planned.

In an interview yesterday, Anderson blamed the poor reception on a confluence of factors, including a leak of the plan that made headlines about the school closings in the Newark Star-Ledger earlier in the day.

She said she wanted to avoid the experience of a year ago, before she was appointed to lead the state-run district by Gov. Chris Christie, when a leaked plan for consolidating schools also sparked public outrage.

“People were very frustrated about getting information in dribs and drabs,” Anderson said yesterday. “The goal was to get it out there, transparency to what we were doing and let them hear it in whole.”

“I’m still happy about moving that way,” she said. “But I do regret the leak happened, and there were a number of people willing to come out but were drowned out.”

When asked whether the news getting out was to be expected, she said: “I’m not naive, but it was still unfortunate.”

Still, she said hopes for more positive feedback as she starts smaller meetings with the families and teachers of the affected schools, starting tomorrow.

“First and foremost, I want to spend time with the communities that will be impacted,” Anderson said. “It is really important to meet with them and hear their aspirations for the future.”

Those will be followed by larger community forums, as well as discussions by the district’s advisory board.

The president of the board, Eliana Pintor Marin, attended the Friday night meeting and acknowledged it did not go well. And she said it was not entirely surprising, especially as the biggest focus was on closing schools that have deep ties in their neighborhoods.

“The rough start is the emotion part of it, maybe even harder because [Anderson] is new here,” said Pintor Marin “But the most important process will be next, when she starts meeting with the families.”

And there could still be more changes to come. Anderson said she is open to making adjustments in the plan, and she said another dozen schools face similar problems of low enrollments and low student performance. Still, at this point, she doubted that even further closings were in the offing this year.

“We’re making strong proposals,” she said. ‘We believe in them.”

Anderson said final decision for the next school year would be made by March 1.