Revised ‘One Newark’ Plan – One Less Closure, Changes for Charters

John Mooney | February 7, 2014 | Education
Historic Weequahic High stays, students at schools turned over to charters have the option of staying put

Newark's historic Weequahic High School.
In the face of fierce debate, the reorganization of Newark public schools will undergo some revisions that seek to address mounting questions and criticism while finalizing the plans for next fall.

State-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson plans to move ahead with the bulk of her controversial “One Newark” reorganization for the state-run district, but with some changes and updates, according to the revised plan obtained by NJ Spotlight and expected to be released today.

In one of the highest-profile schools to be affected, for example, Anderson’s plan would retain Weequahic High School as a comprehensive high school, while also moving two single-gender academies into the building.

Under her initial plan, Weequahic would have no longer existed as a high school, and the academies would have taken over the building, a move that spurred intense objections from the storied schools’ families and alumni. Now, Weequahic’s current students would remain, at least for the next two years, and the three programs will share the building.

Anderson’s revised plan also reveals new details on her strategy for sharing or turning over district schools to charter operators, one of the most contentious aspects of One Newark.

In the revised plan, four district schools — Hawthorne Avenue, Bragaw Avenue, Madison Avenue, and Alexander Street — would each be turned over to charter operators next year.

But a key detail indicates that the bulk of the students in each of the schools would have the option of staying put, a significant departure from the model followed by charters elsewhere in the city. The charter schools would still import their own leadership and staff.

Anderson said in a statement that the revised plan continues her pledge to bring quality schools to the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

“A child in the South or West Ward is virtually guaranteed to be in an elementary school where only 30 percent of students can read — or in a high school with a graduation rate below 30 percent,” the statement read. “This is simply unacceptable.

“If we bring good schools to the neighborhoods with the greatest needs, we could revive schools and communities,” it added.

The revisions come as Anderson faces increasing pressure, political and otherwise, over her plans for reorganizing the state’s largest district at a time of shrinking enrollment and equally fraught budget picture. Anderson is in her third year as Gov. Chris Christie’s appointee to lead the state-operated district.

Anderson also faces time pressure, as the deadlines loom for the central piece of One Newark, a plan for a universal enrollment across district and the bulk of the charter schools. The deadline for families to enroll is February 28.

Still, there is little certainty that the revision will much ease the public uproar, since the changes have more to do with details than with overarching principles. And several contentious aspects of the original plan remain intact, including several other school closures at places like Newton Street and Maple Avenue schools.

“There’s nothing there, no real substance,” said Joseph Del Grosso, president of the Newark Teachers Union, a chief antagonist of late. “It’s still the same Cami Anderson: not from Newark, not caring about Newark.”

The president of the district’s local advisory board, Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, said even the concessions appeared to be only temporary steps to appease different factions who have raised concerns. Weequahic, for example, would stay open for two years, after which it would need to meet certain benchmarks.

“This is all an attempt to win back some measure of credibility and separate the Weequahic High School alumni from the rest,” said Baskerville-Richardson, herself a Weequahic graduate.

“I don’t see any major changes in here that prompt me to say she has addressed our concerns,” she said.

According to the revised plan, Newark Public Schools would vacate its downtown headquarters on Cedar Street and move to the current Newark Vocational High School. The district now pays $4 million in rent for the Cedar Street location.

The vocational school in turn would move to West Side High School, which would close as a comprehensive high school and be home instead to the vocational program and the Newark Early College program.

The new central offices will serve as the headquarters for the district, while also providing programs for at-risk students and adults, the plan said.

The agreement with the charters is a significant step for their operators, which have long sought space in the district’s buildings but now will also have to serve their students. The three operators involved are among the city’s most established: TEAM Academy, North Star Academy, and Newark Legacy.

“It is a stretch from what we have done before,” said Ryan Hill, president of TEAM Academy charter schools, which would take over management of Bragaw Avenue School and at least some of the operation at Hawthorne.

”But what we really like about this is we get to be part of the solution for the South Ward, which has seen dwindling enrollment while ours has skyrocketed,” he said. “Hopefully we are part of a long-term solution that fights back against that trend.”