Newark Schools Chief Pulls No Punches in Depicting Challenges

Superintendent presents new study’s data in bid to make case for major reforms

Newark Schools Superintendent Cami Anderson this week rolled out some new and not-so-flattering data about her schools as she presses for changes in the face of a rising charter-school presence and a tough budget outlook in her city.

In a two-hour presentation to reporters yesterday that will be repeated for community groups this month, Anderson did not temper her description of the poverty and other enormous problems facing the state’s largest city.

She noted that virtually all of Newark’s schools – both in the district and charters – are serving students in the state’s bottom fifth in socio-economic status.

But she said that even within that segment of the population there is a wide range of achievement levels that showed both the successes and weaknesses of individual schools, according to the new study commissioned by the district, the Newark Charter School Fund and the Mark Zuckerberg-funded Foundation for Newark’s Future.

Anderson said most of the highest achieving schools were public charter schools not run by the district.

“Without getting into all the nuances, the differences are undeniable,” she said of the gaps between district and charter schools.

But this has been hotly-debated topic in the state, and those “nuances” showed some variations, too. The latest study found that putting students in charter schools was no guarantee of success, either, at least as measured by test scores.

Based on 2010-2011 data on student growth, six of the city’s 12 charter elementary schools showed high performance or improvement on state achievement tests, but an equal number had neither those strong scores nor student-performance improvements. The study did not identify which schools placed where in the spectrum.

Nonetheless, the picture for the district’s public schools was far worse, according to the study developed by the Parthenon consulting group. A small fraction of the schools showed gains in the years studied, but even the highest performing district schools had shortcomings.

For instance, the city’s magnet high schools – where students typically must take a test for admission – posted far higher achievement results than the comprehensive high schools, but with some caveats. Even in those schools, fewer than half – 40 percent — met benchmarks for college readiness in the national ACT exam that is now taken by all high school students in the district.

“Even while we celebrate our magnets, we need to continue to keep them to a high bar,” Anderson said.

What happens next is unclear. Anderson said the study didn’t change any of her own reform strategies for the district, but rather helped “sharpen our goals.”

And she was clearly putting some resources into the public roll-out of the information, including a presentation to the district’s School Advisory Board on Tuesday. Virtually all of her top staff — including a half-dozen assistant superintendents and special assistants – attended yesterday’s presentation, which was held in a district conference room.

“Truth is truth,” Anderson said when asked about the data’s purpose. “We have to have a data-driven, frank discussion.”

The push comes at a time when the superintendent, appointed by Gov. Chris Christie 18 months ago, will be making some tough choices about the fate of individual schools — decisions sure to generate considerable blow-back from the city’s vocal community activists and school advocates.

One of her slides in the 34-page PowerPoint presentation showed the excess capacity in the district’s school buildings, representing as many as 7,000 seats in a district of 37,000 students.

The excess led, at least in part, to Anderson’s push to close and consolidate schools in her first year. Yesterday, Anderson did not rule out the possibility that schools that continue to show low achievement may be subject to strong intervention, ranging from closures to replacement of their staffs.

She said those decisions were still a few months away, as the latest school and student data will be made available by the state in January.

“Any school that has appeared in the (bottom) tier and stayed there for two years in a row, that would cause us to ask some serious questions,” she said. “It will force us to think about some aggressive measures.”