JOHN MOONEY | NJ SPOTLIGHT
The public battles over Newark school closures, consolidations and other reconfigurations have started up anew. State-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson this week has begun to unveil her “One Newark” plan for remaking what she called the “portfolio” of the city schools, as they face a growing exodus of students to charter schools while grappling with greater needs and tighter budgets. The families and staff of 15 schools most affected by Anderson’s plan heard details at meetings held last night across the city. Another 15 affected schools are to host meetings tonight.
An internal draft of the plan appears to lay out a sweeping and complicated series of moves, ranging from transforming Weequahic High School into separate single-gender academies to recruiting charter organizations to manage low-performing elementary schools. There are proposals for “redesigning” some schools, “dissolving” others and “re-siting” still others. But what that means is not always specified, and Anderson’s plan does not give a timeline for these changes.
Neither Anderson nor her administration would discuss details of the plan until its formal release on Thursday.
The draft also provides a broad outline for spending hundreds of millions of dollars on district school improvements, presumably paid by the state.
One part of the report notes that 37 of Newark’s schools were built during or even before the Great Depression. The plan also calls for moving several existing schools to new, improved quarters.
Even before the formal release of Anderson’s plans, rumors of what’s in store were already spawning raucous and angry reaction at the monthly public meeting of the district’s advisory board last night.
Newton Avenue School, where a meeting last night previewed proposed reforms for Newark’s schools, would be operated by an unspecified charter school.
The three-hour meeting at Park Elementary School in the North Ward might offer a preview, in microcosm, of the battle ahead.
It is a fight likely to be even more intense than the furor that erupted in 2011 when Anderson took office and faced the prospect of school closures. She ended up backing off from most of her proposed changes in the face of that public outcry, citing a need for further study.
The public discontent with the superintendent – at least in some quarters – has only increased since then. Last night, Anderson was repeatedly interrupted when she presented routine school data, not to mention the initial information about the broader plan.
With Anderson sitting next to her, advisory board President Antoinette Richardson-Baskerville opened the meeting with a 10-minute statement complaining about the lack of community input in formulating the reform plans. She called for a moratorium on the proposals even before they are presented.
“Nobody can deny the need for change, because education must always change to meet the evolving needs of society,” she said. “The problem here is that the process is corrupt. One cannot possibly act in the best interest of children, and then simultaneously disdain public input into significant changes in the education of those children.”
She said conversations with others had evoked a sense that “war on traditional neighborhood public schools has been declared.”
“But I don’t believe we have to go to war,” Baskerville Richardson added. “I believe we can call a truce and fix this.”
Also significant in the coming debate will be the ongoing mayoral election to replace former Mayor Cory Booker, an ally of Anderson who is now in Washington, D.C., after his election to the U.S. Senate.
The mayoral politics surfaced last night, with canvassers at the doors of the school and at least one candidate inside.
A frontrunner in the election, City Councilman Ras Baraka, spoke at length from the audience, drawing loud applause. Baraka is also the principal of Central High School, which would apparently not be affected by Anderson’s plan.
Baraka said parents are already “irate” at schools like Hawthorne Avenue that appear headed toward either being sold or leased to the TEAM Academy charter organization to manage.
“We searched all over the country for a superintendent to improve the schools, not close the schools and sell the buildings,” Baraka said of Anderson’s selection three years ago, drawing his loudest applause. “That is an admittance of failure.”
As speaker after speaker came up — from teacher and principal union presidents to longtime antagonists – Anderson sat silently and without much expression, even sometimes in the face of personal insult.
Reading from part of the draft report, she stressed that important and difficult decisions needed to be made to address shrinking enrollments district-wide, poor performance in too many schools, and the state of the district’s buildings.
“We must insure that there are excellent schools in every ward, in every ward,” Anderson said. “And that no vacant buildings stand in any ward, as that is not only bad for schools but it is bad for communities.”
“And we must grow our capacity to innovate and to grow student options so that every kid, regardless of heir needs, can access an excellent school,” she said.
She said public discussion would come. “We deeply respect that parents are the first and most important group of stakeholders,” she said, explaining the roll-out that starts with the individual school meetings.
“We have a commitment to continue that dialogue, as we believe that is a conversation that must be had,” Anderson continued, speaking over sporadic catcalls from the audience.
Sweeping changes proposed
The draft of her plan indicates that Anderson plans some bold moves to address what the report describes as a worsening enrollment and fiscal crisis.
According to the draft report, as many as one-third of students in the poorest South Ward and West Ward have already moved to charter schools and more than one-third of the district’s $1 billion general fund will be siphoned to charter schools by 2016.
Also under the heading of the “One Newark” banner, Anderson has sought to control at least some of that exodus with implementation of a new universal enrollment system for next year that will include three quarters of the charter schools.
But that initiative is overshadowed by huge changes proposed for city schools, at least as outlined in the draft. The biggest changes appear to be in the South Ward, where the report said all elementary schools are “low-performing.”
Three more South Ward schools would be designated as “renewal” schools, gaining additional resources for longer school days and other programs.
But four other South Ward school would instead be managed by “proven charter schools,” in this case TEAM Academy and Newark Legacy. And two schools would be moved to different campuses altogether, with their current buildings presumably closed or sold.
Weequahic High School would be transformed into two single-gender high schools now located elsewhere — Eagle Academy for boys and Girls Academy.
Shabazz High School would see a continuation of a redesign already under way, including a new transfer school.
Every ward would see some change, with the West Ward and Central Ward also seeing significant reforms.
In the Central Ward, the Newton Street School had already been designated as a “renewal” school and has been held up as a model for countless other turnaround efforts over the last decade. Under the latest plan, according to the draft, Newton Avenue School would be operated by an unspecified charter school.
With the dark descending last night, about 40 people attended a meeting of parents and students in the school’s auditorium led by one of Anderson’s assistant superintendents. The meeting was not open to the press.
Charter schools are already an enormous presence in Newark, but as a group they have faced deep schisms over how they operate and which students they enroll. Among the biggest charters is TEAM Academy, which would play a big part in the latest reform plan.
Its president and founder, Ryan Hill, said last night that there is much that needs to be discussed and resolved in coming months.
“While there are a ton of important details to work out, we are eager to partner with the district to work together for all of Newark’s kids,” he said last night.
State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf also came to the defense of Anderson’s plan, calling it “ambitious and promising.”
“If it is viewed through the lens of what is in the best interests of the children of Newark, it will be received as an extraordinary, once-in-a generation opportunity to enhance every Newarker’s access to a quality public school,” he said.