$100M Grant from Mark Zuckerberg Begins to Have Effect on Newark Schools
Jessica Calefati and Kelly Heyboer | Newark Star-Ledger
After years of struggling in Newark’s troubled public schools, Lacha Young enrolled earlier this month in one of the city’s new experimental high schools.
At Newark Leadership Academy, she found new books, an enthusiastic new principal, teachers with time for tutoring and small classes with as few as five students.
For Young, it was a totally new way of learning.
"We stand together as one community here," said Young, 18. "The teachers always keep helping you here, even if you’re being nasty or having a bad day. It’s not like that at other schools."
Young and her classmates have one thing to thank for their new school: Facebook.
A year ago yesterday, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to announce he was making an unprecedented $100 million donation to help reform Newark’s struggling school system. A year later, the spending of the "Facebook money" — as it’s become known in Newark — has gotten mixed reviews.
The process got off to a bad start when the first $1 million was spent on a public survey that critics called a waste of money. That was followed by months of political missteps and public-relations debacles related to politically linked firms hired to help spend the donation.
But in recent months, the Newark-Facebook team seems to have gotten its act together, according to interviews with community leaders and education experts inside and outside of New Jersey. With a new Newark schools superintendent on board and a new head for the nonprofit group overseeing the project, the first Facebook dollars are showing up in Newark classrooms.
So far, at least $9 million of Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift have been spent, according to reviews of financial records and interviews with city officials. In addition, $48 million has been raised from private donors, with the goal of matching the Facebook money.
Four experimental high schools have opened. Two new charter schools are in place. The school day has been extended by up to two hours for thousands of students. A new call center to answer parents’ questions is up and running. New school playgrounds are in the works.
Slowly, the drama over how the high-profile Facebook money was initially being spent is giving way to real changes affecting Newark schoolchildren, said Clement Alexander Price, a Rutgers-Newark history professor and head of the panel that found the city’s new schools superintendent.
"Once again, we’ve borne witness to how drama in Newark is merely drama and oftentimes diminishes the real work," Price said.
CASH COMES IN
Zuckerberg, the reclusive 27-year-old Facebook CEO, has mostly faded from the picture since he was flanked by Gov. Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker during their splashy Oprah show announcement. The social networking mogul left Newark officials and Foundation for Newark’s Future, the nonprofit group created to manage his donation, to oversee the cash.
"It’s possible he will come here, but he is running a pretty significant global company," Booker said of Zuckerberg. "He never set things up so he could micromanage this gift. He never set it up so he would be the one determining the strategy."
Greg Taylor, the new head of Foundation for Newark’s Future, said he and a panel of five trustees are deciding how to spend the Zuckerberg money as it arrives over the next five years.
In recent months, $1 million was spent to open Newark Leadership Academy and Newark Bridges, two high schools designed to help troubled students get their diplomas. Another $1 million went to paying teachers in 10 schools to extend the school day by up to two hours to help improve student test scores.
An additional $600,000 went to a fund to encourage Newark teachers to try new teaching methods, and $176,000 went to a literacy program to distribute children’s books.
When Zuckerberg made his gift, Booker and Christie pledged to find private donors to double Zuckerberg’s $100 million grant.
In the weeks after the Oprah show, donations came in from Microsoft founder Bill Gates, New York investor William Ackman and venture capitalist John Doerr, among others. Since then, donations have slowed significantly. But Taylor promised more donors are being courted.
"New investors wanted to see who the leader of this organization would be," Taylor said. "Raising the rest of these funds will be an ongoing process, a steady flow, rather than a ‘get it all done tomorrow’ mentality."
INFO STAYS SECRET
Few were happy with how the first Facebook dollars were spent last year.
The initial $1 million went to the heavily criticized outreach program dubbed "Partnership For Education in Newark," which was supposed to survey the city about the school system’s problems.
But the effort was panned as a pointless marketing stunt. It didn’t help that the group hired to do the survey — led by political operative and former Elizabeth Board of Education member Jeremiah Grace — refused to disclose how much it was paid. A full accounting of the group’s expenses has never been released.
"So much hope was generated from the $100 million gift and to have the first million spent in a questionable manner is not the way to start this program off on the right foot," Assembly Education Chairman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) said at the time.
Questions were also raised about how the next $500,000 was spent. Booker hired a consulting firm founded by acting state Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf to draft a proposal to close and consolidate dozens of Newark schools and clear space for new charter schools. Cerf said that he didn’t profit from the deal and that he cut ties with the company before taking his state post.
But, parents and education officials protested after a draft of the proposal, which opponents dubbed the "secret plan," was leaked to the media.
Critics say much of how the Foundation for Newark’s Future is spending the Facebook money is still cloaked in mystery. The foundation, for example, refused to disclose how much of Zuckerberg’s donation is being used to pay the salary of Foundation for Newark’s Future’s new CEO or other administrative costs. A spokeswoman said that information would not be made public until the nonprofit foundation files its tax returns.
Newark Teachers Union President Joe Del Grosso said he is troubled by the ongoing secrecy surrounding the Facebook donation.
"We don’t know what the foundation is doing or how they intend to spend the other money," Del Grosso said. "With that money comes a responsibility to the public to be clear about its use."
SPENDING GETS GOING
Newark school officials point to the new experimental high school in the city’s Central Ward as an example of the Facebook money at work.
Newark Leadership Academy opened this month with about 100 students up to age 20 who can earn high school diplomas, GEDs and trade certificates in construction. Many students are former dropouts or recently released from prison.
As word of the program spreads, about five new students enroll each day, said principal Sonn Sam.
"Things are jiving and moving forward and I’m a part of it," said Sam, who came to Newark from Rhode Island after hearing about the new opportunities in the city.
In one of the school’s English classes Friday, six students gathered around two long tables to discuss W.W. Jacobs’ classic short horror story "The Monkey’s Paw." Tattoo-covered teacher Justin DeVoe played heavy metal music in the background as he challenged the students to compete with one another to make the most observations about the story.
Students said they liked their nontraditional teacher and his unusual teaching methods.
"In my old English classes, we only studied vocab words and did work sheets. I cut English class," said Christian Winbush, 20.
After eight years happily teaching in Newark’s Central High School, DeVoe said he was excited the Facebook funding helped give him the opportunity to teach in an experimental high school with students who may have been written off at other schools. "These are students that gave up," said DeVoe, 31. "Life is not supposed to be a series of failures."
CHANGES COME SLOWLY
But, not everyone is sold on how Newark is spending the Facebook money.
Bernice Carmichael said her two sons, who were failing their classes at Newark’s Central High School, are attending two of the schools opened this month with the Facebook funds.
She hopes it will be a new start for her teenagers and the city, but she has her doubts.
"I don’t know what the money is being spent on," Carmichael said. "They’re extending the school day a little bit? Our children need a lot more than that."
Other community members want more of a say in how the Zuckerberg money is spent.
"A lot of the grant distribution process still seems murky," said Richard Cammarieri, a former Newark public schools advisory board member. "There has been discussion of creating a community advisory board that would also have input, which is good. But they need to be more open."
Some of the responsibility for spending the Facebook funds now falls to Cami Anderson, a former high-ranking New York City school official who immediately began making changes when she was named Newark’s new superintendent in May.
For the first time, Anderson gave Newark principals the authority to staff their schools as they saw fit. Teachers who didn’t make the cut were kept on the payroll but demoted to teacher’s aide jobs or other supporting roles.
A $500,000 grant from the Facebook money will be used to attract high-quality principals to the district.
But Anderson cautioned that the donations are not enough to solve all of Newark’s education problems. Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift and the hoped-for $100 million in matching grants will account for roughly 4 percent of the district’s operating budget over the next five years.
"No matter how much we could raise privately, it would still be a small percentage of the overall money we spend. So we have to use that money wisely to drive innovation," said Anderson, who has been on the job for just under four months. "We also need to make our public dollars stretch further than they do now."
Many hoped the Zuckerberg donation would hasten the end of the 16-year state takeover of the Newark School District. But state officials said in July that Newark hadn’t boosted its "unacceptably low" student test scores and graduation rates enough to return the schools to local control.
On Friday, Newark’s advisory school board and local education advocates filed a pair of lawsuits challenging the state’s decision.
"Newark’s voters should, by right, be able to once again control their own schools," said state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex). "It has been 16 years since the state took over the district and voters have been denied a voice and authority through elected representatives."
JURY'S STILL OUT
Can a billionaire really make a difference in a city where half of the 40,000 public school students fail to graduate? Education experts say it’s still far too early to tell. But the rest of the nation will be watching closely as Newark spends the Zuckerberg grant over the next five years.
Newark can either spend the money on a series of "cute" education programs or make a meaningful change to the city’s schools, said Rick Hess, director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
"The real question is not: ‘Are there some more dollars for some nice programs the system currently can’t afford?’?" Hess said. "When you get to Year Five, do people think of the money as having helped the Newark Public Schools system get on a fundamentally better trajectory than it was on before?"