Anderson’s Meeting with Newark Teachers: Civil and a Little Nervous

John Mooney | February 16, 2012 | Education
Educators understand that super's consolidation plans could mean fewer teachers on the payroll

These are the quieter meetings for Cami Anderson, the ones where the Newark school superintendent doesn’t face what has become the familiar wrath of community and parent activists.

This one was for Newark teachers, more than 60 of them, who traveled after school yesterday to the Harold Wilson School in the Central Ward to talk with Anderson about how they will be evaluated in the classroom — and whether they will have a job next year.

“We don’t know what will happen next, a lot of teachers feel that way,” said Eunice Mitchell, a teaching coach at Newark Innovation Academy. “The uncertainty is very scary.”

After more than an hour of cordial if not complimentary exchanges, Anderson had more than survived another encounter in a district where she plans to close and consolidate schools and change how business gets done.

The reorganization is a concern for many Newark teachers, who worry about what will happen in the next year or two, as Anderson unveils her plans to make the district more efficient. With reorganization, there is little doubt that there will be the need for fewer teachers.

“We’re not necessarily her easiest crowd,” said Mitchell after the meeting. “But I think her fortitude in knowing it has to happen is courageous and spot on.”

It was a clear contrast to the reaction of two weeks ago, when Anderson addressed a community meeting at Rutgers-Newark and announced her plans to reorganize the district, and close or consolidate 10 schools.

It was an angry reception, to say the least, cutting the meeting short and leaving a boiling tension in a district that has seen its share of combat in the 15 years since the state took it over.

A lawsuit challenging the state’s continued control is now in the courts, and more contentious meetings are expected in the weeks ahead, as Anderson seeks to make the final decisions for next year by March 1. Meetings with families in the effected schools are to start today.

But those tensions were below the surface yesterday, as Anderson held what is her fourth teachers-only forum to let her employees speak their minds and ask questions.

Much of the discussion centered on Anderson’s plans for a new evaluation system that will clarify and systematize how principals and supervisors are to judge teachers, including the use of student test scores. The pilot is now being tested in a half-dozen schools.

The questions from the audience delved into the details. Some worried that not enough has been developed around how teachers will be measured in subjects that do not have standardized tests. Other questions focused on the capacity and capabilities of principals to not just supervise teachers, but support and train them as well.

“It could be more of a partnership with the principals and not divisive or just a feeling of getting caught,” said Mitchell, speaking up during the meeting.

Anderson tried to stress that she plans a more collaborative relationship in schools, including additional training of principals. She said she recognizes the hardest challenges in Newark from her days as district chief of New York City’s alternative education programs.

One teacher said the announcement her school would close was a blow to the morale of not just teachers but their students. “They say, ‘why does it matter, Ms. Anderson doesn’t care anyway,’ ” the teacher said.

Anderson conceded it is a difficult time, but she hoped students would understand that she was not shuttering schools because of them. “If the children feel they are the problem, then we have failed,” she said.

And she said the consolidation plans aren’t just to make the district more efficient but also improve the level of education it provides.

“We can’t just consolidate schools and not do anything new about training and support,” she said. “This is not just about efficiency but also about excellence.”