Envisioning the Future with Newark’s Roger León

John Mooney | May 31, 2018 | Education
In a far-ranging Q&A with NJ Spotlight, Newark’s new superintendent of schools touches on changes and challenges facing the state’s largest district

Credit: Uncommon Schools
Newark school superintendent, Roger León
To say Roger León has a herculean task ahead as Newark’s next school superintendent is an understatement.

Twenty-five years in the district as a teacher and administrator, he steps in as the first locally picked leader after 22 years of state control, a native of Newark who not only survived but also rose through the ranks to lead New Jersey’s largest district.

And while last week’s unanimous choice for the job is being celebrated and critiqued, it is inarguable that the 49-year-old child of Cuban immigrants comes in at a time when there are deep questions and challenges about what the future will bring.

Independent charter schools continue to thrive in the city that has already become a national showcase for the movement. And three years after Mark Zuckerberg’s largesse ran out, the district faces a $100 million-plus deficit and questions about how it will use its buildings and manage its workforce.

Less than a week since his pick, NJ Spotlight’s John Mooney spoke by telephone with León this weekend about some of his initial thoughts on the job he will formally take on July 1.

He spoke in mostly general terms and was diplomatic on the specifics, shying away from making commitments about what comes next on hot topics like charter schools and enrollment choice. But he stressed that he plans to live up to the promise of a leader chosen by the community and accountable to the community in how those decisions are made.

Question: After all your years as a student, teacher, and administrator in Newark schools, how are you feeling now as its new leader?

Answer: It’s extremely exciting. It’s an opportunity to bring to fruition everything I have learned throughout all of the years, the students I’ve interacted with, the parents of students of mine. It’s the culmination of it all.

I’ve been getting emails from old students saying, “Good morning, Mr. Superintendent” … And all the teachers I worked with (at Newark’s Horton and University schools), are saying, “You represent us.” It’s a moment in time where many people will be represented in this administration. What I am walking into, I am not walking into it alone.

Everyone will be part of the work we will be doing going forward, and it’s just been really, really comforting that a lot of people are seeing themselves in this administration.

Q: How is the administration of Roger León going to be different than that of past superintendents?

A: The hallmark of the administration is that everything we do will be centered on students, first and foremost. There will not be anything vague about what is the purpose of this administration.

And I think my administration will show the ability to coalesce all the key stakeholders and have them at the table to build consensus.

Q: Were the last seven to 10 years, especially those under Gov. Chris Christie, were they good years for Newark schools? There are a lot of different opinions on that, on whether the district made great strides in that period or faced great challenges and strife.

A: I think all of that is true. There have been incredible challenges in the last 10 years, and there has also been great work in the last 10 years. Ultimately, where we are right now is how will we move forward with what we’ve learned. We’ve learned a lot in the last 10 years, and we’ve learned a lot in the last 22 years. And quite frankly, we are at a point right now where we are responsible moving forward and we’re not blaming anyone in the past, we’re not going to point the fingers to what worked or didn’t work.

Q: On some specific issues, has Newark’s once-controversial enrollment system of opening up school choice to all families, including to charter schools, has that system worked and is it worth maintaining?

A: The reality is the school district did not have an enrollment system, and now it currently has an enrollment system. Are there concerns that members of the community have problems with? Yes, and there are strategies we will employ to address some of that angst.

I agree with the intent 100 percent that the parent should be the determining factor where a child should go, whether one school or another. Our responsibility is to create incredible schools in every single building, so all of them are a viable option.

Q: So, the fundamentals of the enrollment system will remain? When a parent walks into an enrollment center, they will basically face the same process?

A: An enrollment system is something we have to have. And I know there are concerns I will reflect on. For example, initially, when we had the enrollment system, there was an appeals process governed by a committee of district folks and charter folks. That doesn’t exist today. That is an example of something I would reinstate.

Q: What will be your administration’s relationship with the charter community? Charters have been the source of a lot of angst in the community. Where is Roger León on that?

A: Charter schools exist and are providing parents an option, and that is the reality. I think my relationship with charters will be a defining moment in my administration. The funding, the co-locations, the leases, I want to lead that conversation, to address a lot of the confusion and provide clarity. We’ve allowed that to become an us versus them, and this administration will not be part of that.

If there is a teacher in either type of school who has figured it out (how to better educate children), or a leader who has determined a system that has worked, why are we not sharing that? This administration will be overly sharing. There are schools outside of Newark that are doing wonderful things. We will be going to those schools.

Q: Are you comfortable with the current growth of charters, with close to 40 percent of students in charters and the continued co-locations with district schools?

A: The reality is there is a growth happening, and much of what my job will be is to spend lots of time figuring out how we improve our own schools and make sure they are an option. Our responsibility is to make every school the best possible option. That’s the part I can control.

Q: Jumping to the budget situation, the district is getting something of a break from the state in terms of additional aid for next year, but even with that, what is the fiscal health of Newark public schools?

A: We are going into the new year $140 million in the red, minus the $37 million in additional aid from the state for which we are most appreciative.

We will be conducting a comprehensive needs assessment, from the boilers to the leadership in schools. We want to determine where we are, identify our needs and making strong determinations from what we learn. Will we need to reallocate funds, will we need to secure more dollars, what are we doing with the dollars you are receiving?

Q: In the meantime, will there be cuts to schools the next year?

A: Currently, as it relates to our schools, based on what I know to date, we will be able to staff our schools based on the number of students that we have. Do I forecast a right-sizing of the district once I take office? None of those things are ones I am thinking about right now.

Q: On the personnel front, are there going to be big changes in school leadership and in central office?

A: I think we have incredible talent at central office and the school-leadership level currently. And there is incredible talent at the teacher level. What I want to provide is tapping into everyone’s greatness and creating for each employee a plan, if you will. One way we do that is promoting them, but another is letting them stay in the classroom.

I want everyone to feel a part of what we want to do in the city of Newark. Because if the city of Newark gets it right, the entire state of New Jersey becomes stronger. The talent pool we have now will get us there.

Q: So not a lot of turnover in leadership at the moment?

A: Whatever people are fearing at the moment, there’s a comfort I can provide. No one has experienced more transitions than me, and I know there are people who are nervous. Part of what I want to do is show that I am conscious of that in all decisions that I make.

Q: Will you continue the controversial “educators without placement” pool, where excess teachers are placed without necessarily any full-time role in a school?

A: I have not made any decision in terms of those issues. At this point, I am in a fact-finding stage, where I am making inquiries throughout the administration.

Q: Stepping back, what did you think of state control, as you worked here before, during, and now after? What is your verdict on the past 22 years?

A: The state operation worked, and the evidence is that on February 1, the school began its transition from advisory to the local board. And in April, we had the first election of three new members.

Arguably, many might say, “Could have it ended sooner?” The state has assisted us greatly with goods and services to get us to this point where we are today, and they will be extremely important in the work we move forward. I see the state Department of Education and the current commissioner as partners in this work. I do not see the state’s role ending because simply we are no longer state-operated.

Q: What about you might surprise people once you are in this new role?

A: I think what will surprise people in the end — although maybe not quite a surprise — is my ability to unify people who may have fundamental disagreements but to get them to focus on one mission.

… You will not leave a meeting where I have said one thing and meant another. There will be disagreements at the table, but we’ll then regroup for the next discussion to be better.