Newark School Chief Paints Picture of Bright Future on the Horizon

John Mooney | October 16, 2014 | Education
But harsh reality of community opposition to reforms and state-aid crunch casts shadow over upbeat presentation

Credit: NJTV
Cami Anderson, Newark's superintendent of schools.
With the city’s skyline in the background, Newark school Superintendent Cami Anderson on Tuesday invited reporters to a breakfast presentation on what she touts as the good news about the state’s largest school system.

Anderson titled the two-hour presentation “On the Move: Newark Public Schools – Looking Back and Planning Ahead.” It was held at the downtown Newark Club. All of her senior staff was in attendance,

She listed improvements in the state-run district’s graduation rate, academic progress being made in its lowest performing schools, and a range of other improvements that she said have been accomplished or on the way.

The controversial “One Newark” school reorganization plan, she said, has been successful in providing city families real choices.

Much of the morning program sounded like a pep talk, with nothing but good news about Newark’s schools – even if the claims of improvement and progress were not always accompanied by actual data.

And it wasn’t until the end of the morning that Anderson even acknowledged the tumult there’s been in the city’s school system under her watch.

Blaming it on a few people and what she repeatedly referred to as “politics,” Anderson said the criticism of her One Newark plan is largely overstated, that the supposed boycott staged by parents at the start of the school year was “non-existent,” and that she planned to proceed full steam ahead with her reforms.

“The purpose of this was to correct some misinformation and, most of all, we wanted to put what we are doing in context in terms of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going,” she said.

But Anderson may have not done much to dispel the fact that her tenure — going into her fourth year as Gov. Chris Christie’s appointee to take the helm of the state-run district — remains very much clouded by challenges and controversies that don’t appear to be going away soon.

Community outreach

It didn’t come up in the presentation until a reporter asked her about it, but Anderson continues to have a public relations problem.

She has been at odds with her locally elected school board since her arrival in 2011. Last month, after no-confidence votes and calls for her resignation, the board voted almost unanimously to freeze her pay and block other initiatives. She hasn’t attended a public board meeting in months.

Meanwhile, protests continue from activists and student groups opposed to the “One Newark” reorganization plan, including one on Monday in support of a federal civil-rights complaint alleging that closing and consolidation of schools disproportionately hurt black and Hispanic students and families.

A “working group” formed by the Christie administration to work with Anderson and monitor her progress has been slow to engage the community, with the names of members only now starting to emerge.

Anderson wouldn’t say anything more than that the group has met and is still developing its mission. But acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe yesterday confirmed that there are about a dozen members, including some Newark luminaries.

Among them is Clement Price, the Rutgers University professor and former school board member who is among the elder statesmen of the city.

Price said in an interview yesterday that when he was asked to help, he was eager to do so. He discounted any questions about whether the group would be independent or unbiased.

“I would not have agreed (to serve) if I thought anything untoward,” Price said.

“We have no agenda yet other than finding out how we can be helpful,” he added.

Stubborn progress

Anderson has repeatedly said that it would take at least three years to see her reforms take hold. These have included a new teachers’ contract that provides for performance incentives and heightened attention to the very lowest-performing schools, which she has labeled “renew schools.”

And on Tuesday, she highlighted some gains in those dozen schools, saying virtually every one saw improvement in their math scores and that a quarter of them improved in language arts.

Elsewhere, she said that principals have been replaced in more than half of the district’s 66 schools. Under the new contract and evaluation system, top teachers are staying in the district, she said, while almost half of the teachers deemed less than effective have left.

As for the students, all Newark high-school students are now being required to take the ACT college entrance exam to better gauge their college readiness, and she said graduation rates overall are up at least 10 percentage points — from the low 50s range to “closing in on 70 percent.”

But the details to back up her arguments and claims have been more elusive. Anderson was repeatedly asked Tuesday for actual data, including the district’s latest results on the state’s testing for 2013-14. She said those results are available on the district’s website, but despite requests to provide the links, nothing has been forthcoming from her office two days later.

Nonetheless, she still has the support of those who matter most: Hespe and his boss, Gov. Chris Christie.

Both publicly backed Anderson within the last week, with Hespe saying in an interview last night that the opening of schools in Newark went well – “It met our expectations,” he said — and that he thinks Anderson is making progress in her efforts to further engage the community.

“We’re seeing it play out,” he said.

Systemic challenges

For all the focus on her high-profile reforms, Anderson also faces some tough structural problems — financial and otherwise.

The financial problems are daunting. With a budget approaching $1 billion, there is little relief in sight from the state, which provides the bulk of the Newark school system’s funding, as state aid under Christie has been largely static the last two years and a pension crisis offers little hope for increased aid in the near future.

And Anderson said Tuesday that the district’s payments to charter schools continue to climb, putting further strains on her own budget for the public school district. She estimates that the district will be paying charters close to $250 million in 2016-17.

Meanwhile, the district faces a host of challenges in its existing programs, especially special education. In a class-action settlement reached by parents and the district in 2012, Newark schools agreed to fix the slow and cumbersome process it was using to identify and provide services to students with disabilities and special needs.

Yet, two years later, while the district is now required to follow a “corrective action plan” issued by the state, Anderson acknowledged that there is much still to improve in the special-education program.