Newark Superintendent Turns Attention to Revamping High Schools

John Mooney | February 14, 2013 | Education
District-wide choice program to be key component of plan to improve 9th-through-12th grade academics

Newark Superintendent of Schools, Cami Anderson.
A year after concentrating her focus on the district’s elementary schools, Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson is focusing attention this coming year on improving the district’s large comprehensive high schools.

And unlike the school closures of a year ago that roiled the community, Anderson’s remedy for the high schools will be in largely opening them up, with a new district-wide choice program that actually will add schools.

There are some closures planned — this time of two very small elementary schools, including one for special-education students — and those proposals have already sparked some debate.

Yet, so far at least, it is nothing compared to the controversial closures and overhauls of last year and even what was speculated for this year.

Anderson and her top staff have begun meeting with community leaders, educators and others to start rolling out the new high school redesign, under which families and students who do not get into the district’s selective magnet schools will still have options within the city.

The details of what special programs or approaches each of the comprehensive schools – including East Side, Weequahic and Malcolm X Shabazz — will offer is still being developed, Anderson said. She said they could be thematic, focusing on different social and academic needs.

Some tangible changes will include the breakdown of Barringer High School into three separate schools and an almost certain turnover of staff and leadership at West Side High School, which will become the newest “renewal school” in the district.

The district is also adding an all-girls high school, Young Women’s Leadership Academy, to join the all-boys school that opened this year.

Anderson said a full campaign would start this spring to educate the public about the options, followed in May by an application process in which students will pick their top choices and the district will enroll them based on geography and other factors.

The superintendent said a lesson came from the expansion of the magnet application system this year, as 80 percent of eligible students applied for seats in magnet schools like Science Park and Arts high schools.

Those schools are academically selective and only 20 percent were admitted, but Anderson said it showed families want the choices.

“We have 1,000 kids leave between eighth and ninth grade in this city,” the superintendent said last night. “When they didn’t get in (to the magnets), they do what parents are apt to do and they find other options.”

With so much still to be developed, the verdict is still out on the plans, with some of those leaders apprised of the proposal saying they are still awaiting more details themselves.

But Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, chairperson of the local advisory board, said she was glad that the high schools were getting attention.

“I have always been a proponent of resources going to those schools,” she said. “People love their neighborhood schools, and I really hope her plans to be a success.”

Baskerville-Richardson also stressed that the public and the board need to be included in development of the plans. After last year, though, she said she was pleased that Anderson was at least stepping back from any major overhaul that would spark a furor.

“There were all kinds of rumors, and I’m just very glad none of that is taking place,” she said.

Separate from the high school proposal, Anderson’s plans for closing the two small schools are likely to spur at least some public debate. The two schools are Roseville Avenue School and the Samuel Berliner School.

Roseville is one of the district’s smallest, with just over 100 students, Anderson said.

“There are 120 students there, and a building that is maybe 120 years old,” she said. “That many students for a full faculty is not something any district can sustain.”

She said there had been some academic success at the school, but it was “erratic” and the school was subject to an ongoing investigation into testing irregularities as well. Anderson said there were no plans for a reuse of the building or leasing to a charter school.

The Berliner School serves just 38 students with special needs – specifically, behavior and emotional disorders. Anderson said she had real concerns about the segregation of those students, and that they would be better served in more integrated settings.

“Special education is not a place but a service,” she said. “I just don’t believe that segregated schools are the best settings for these kids.”

Still, any proposed closing stirs up the families, staffs and communities with a history and stake in those schools, and already the proposed Roseville closing has drawn criticism from the Newark Teachers Union President Joseph Del Grosso.

“We’ve always had a good partnership with that school, and we’re really upset about seeing that,” he said. “The community will not take that decision well.”