Spirit of Cooperation Evident Again at Appearance by Mayor, Schools Chief

John Mooney | January 6, 2016 | Education
Baraka, Cerf exchange praise at event unveiling incentives encouraging Newark’s top graduates to attend college in NJ

Credit: Audible.com
Newark Superintendent Chris Cerf (left); Don Katz, Audible's CEO; and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka
Atop Audible.com’s downtown Newark headquarters yesterday, business leaders joined Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and city schools Superintendent Chris Cerf to announce a new scholarship and internship program for the city’s brightest graduates.

It was the kind of feel-good event that Baraka and Cerf, both astute politicians, would have been hard-pressed to skip.

But their joint appearance yesterday hardly would have been a given just a year or two ago, when city and school relationships weren’t exactly warm in New Jersey’s largest city.

Yesterday’s event offered further evidence of the growing relationship – if not an outright alliance – between the two leaders in a pivotal time for the state-run district’s move back to local control.

Cerf couldn’t have had more praise for Baraka yesterday. It was praise so effusive, in fact, that a rarely speechless Baraka could only respond, “Wow.”

“We don’t always agree, in fact, we disagree a lot,” Cerf said. “But I am consistently struck by this mayor’s principle and his commitment and the transition he has made to leading this city in the direction of greatness.”

And Baraka, who last year said he hoped Gov. Chris Christie’s promises of a return back to local operation of the city’s school district would be fulfilled in 2016, said yesterday that the slower process is progressing well and that Cerf deserved some of the credit.

“He’s been honest, and he’s been transparent,” Baraka said of Cerf in an interview afterward.

“It doesn’t mean we agree, but at least we can fight,” the mayor said. “Better to have someone you can fight with than one you can’t find. At least I can find him, and if I call him a few names, he’s OK with that. And he has called me a few names.”

“It’s been a back and forth, but it’s been a relationship,” Baraka said.

Neither would say they are entirely on the same page, by any means. Baraka wanted the ceding of state control to have happened already, and Cerf was the state education commissioner under Christie who resisted the process before his current stint as superintendent.

But since then, the two have teamed up on a couple of initiatives, including a new “community school” program in the city’s troubled South Ward.

And the two have agreed to go through the state’s monitoring process known as QSAC – the acronym for the Quality Single Accountability Continuum – that will take months more to just to determine if the district is ready for a return to local control. The district has submitted its plan, and the next step will be for state evaluators to come in to city schools this spring.

If the district does pass muster, it could take another year after that to put the pieces in place, including a local vote on whether the schools would be run by an elected or appointed local board.

In the meantime, a separate working group of local leaders – including business people, clergy, and even a student – continues to meet to offer advice on the transition while also working to calm the political waters.

“We’re moving forward and following the QSAC model,” Baraka said yesterday. “It’s been fair. It’s also been intensive work that is happening, where before this, they were not doing the work.”

Yesterday, political differences were put aside on behalf of a program that will give a boost to top students in every school in the city.

Under the program called Smart Students Choose New Jersey, the top graduates at all 33 Newark high schools – district, charter and non-public – who stay in New Jersey to attend college will receive a $2,000 scholarship and, more significantly, the promise of a job internship with a major New Jersey company over three summers before graduating.

The top qualifying graduates from 11 high schools in Camden will receive the incentives and rewards.

The aim is to keep New Jersey’s best students in New Jersey. New Jersey has one of the nation’s top rates of students leaving the state for college, at roughly a third of all high school graduates last year.

[related]Among the leading sponsors of the program is Choose New Jersey, a statewide organization launched by Christie to promote the business community in the state. Its chairman, PSE&G president and chief operating officer Ralph LaRossa, said he has seen the problem firsthand — his daughter left the state to attend college in Indiana.

“We need to get the message out of what a great opportunity these institutions are and what they are providing for children,” he said.

The program is modeled in part on the event host’s “Audible Scholars” program, which has provided dozens of Newark graduates the possibility of internships and jobs at the company.

“I worry that without substantial job growth, college graduates will not come back to Newark to contribute to the city’s renaissance,” said Donald Katz, founder and CEO of Audible.com. “By encouraging the top Newark grads to go to college in New Jersey and stay in New Jersey, it is really important, and we are really proud to be sponsors of this program.”