After the PowerPoint, Newark’s Superintendent Candid about Challenges

Anderson talks about competition from charter schools, time spent getting to know teachers and students’ families

Newark Superintendent of Schools Cami Anderson
The presentation was a familiar one, as Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson came before the State Board of Education yesterday with her progress report for the district.

But her exchanges afterward proved a little less predictable, as the embattled superintendent opened up about her own challenges in the community, as well as in the face of the rising charter school presence.

Anderson, chided for her rare appearances at public meetings in Newark, came before the state board yesterday for the annual presentation from each of the four state-operated districts.

And her most provocative comments came after her Power Point presentation, when state board members quizzed Anderson on her sometimes-tense relations with the community and her mixed, if not lackluster, student achievement gains.

Board member Arcelio Aponte, a Newark native, gave Anderson praise for the gains she presented in the high schools, where test scores and graduation rates have risen in her three years and dropout rates fallen.

But then he turned to her elementary schools, where student test scores actually showed a four-point drop in both language arts and math in the four years since Anderson took the job, to 36 percent and 46 percent passing, respectively.

“I’m puzzled to see how those are trending downward,” Aponte said.

Anderson’s answer proved a complicated one, saying there was a mix of factors involved. She said there had been ups and downs in those scores in the ensuing years.

But maybe in her most provocative answer — and one to surely fuel further debate in her city — she pointed to the growing charter school presence in the district as a contributing factor, saying the alternative schools were drawing students from her schools.

“We’re losing the higher-performing students to charters, and the needs [in district schools] have gotten larger,” Anderson said.

At another point, Anderson specifically cited some of the district’s highest performing charter schools as clearly serving a different set of students than in some of her toughest schools, “where there are 35 percent if students with special needs.”

“I’m not saying they are out there intentionally skimming, but all of these things are leading to a higher concentration of the neediest kids in fewer [district] schools,” she said.

Still, Anderson said that the district’s controversial universal enrollment system – where families go through a central process for both charter and district schools – was aimed to address the disparities.

She said the One Newark system could help set what she called as a middle ground between districts that had fully embraced charters and those more resistant. “Let’s say there will be a third way, where we get the best of the innovation, and the best of what district has to offer,” she said.

Her comments about community tensions proved less startling but also more candid than usual, as Anderson continued to defend herself against what has been a rising tide of discontent from at least some quarters.

For instance, she was greeted in the back of the hearing room by officials of the Newark Teachers Union, which has intensified up its grievances against her administration over its reassignments and actions against teachers.

“There has obviously been a lot of political tumult in Newark,” Anderson said. “But I will tell you that I spend at least half of my time in teacher brown-bags, coffee klatches with families, classroom visits, grocery store visits, sidewalk mini-conventions.

“My experience at the grassroots in Newark is that there are folks totally excited, some folks saying I’m actually moving too slow, and some folks who are taking a wait-and-see attitude,” she said.

As for her refusal to attend the school advisory board’s monthly public meetings, Anderson said that decision came out of what she said was a tenor of political speeches and “100 percent personal attacks” during this spring’s mayoral campaign.

But she said she continued to have interactions with the board in other settings, including their committee and working sessions.

“I absolutely feel it is my responsibility to work with the school advisory board,” she said.