With New Superintendent, Changes Come Fast to Newark Schools
Jessica Calefati | The Star-Ledger
NEWARK —When DaShawn Boyd enrolled last fall as a freshman at Bard Early College High School he considered himself a top student. The 15-year-old had earned mostly A’s at Camden Middle School.
But a few weeks into the school year, he discovered things were different. "I was failing math, a subject I had always done well in," DaShawn said. "I started to realize I was failing because I hadn’t learned enough math before I got to high school."
DaShawn said his middle school teachers were so busy breaking up fights among students that there was little time left for instruction. Now, he and roughly two dozen classmates must repeat some freshman year coursework at Bard — one of four new high schools opened last year in Newark — because they were not ready for the rigors of high school.
"At my old school, I was the smart kid," said Lorenzo Lloyd, 15, another Bard student who failed at least one course. "Those teachers cheated me out of a better education."
Bard is one of the ambitious new schools opened last year under Newark School Superintendent Cami Anderson and Dashawn’s experience could be seen as a microcosm of the school system she has started to remake her first year. There was a new boss in town and the change came fast.
Anderson, 41, appointed in May 2011, has closed schools, replaced nearly half of the city’s principals, extended the school day for thousands of students and opened new secondary schools such as Bard Early College High School, a rigorous program that allows students to graduate with a diploma and a two-year associate’s degree.
From interviews with teachers, students and school officials, it's clear that Anderson won a lot friends in her first year but she has also made some members of the community feel like there is a revolution going on — one they are not sure they like.
Even more change is coming this fall - for the first time, new, consolidated elementary and middle schools, with new leadership and updated technology, will open in place of the failed neighborhood schools Anderson shuttered.
And she shows no signs of letting up.
"None of this work is easy because we all want results for our kids yesterday," Anderson said. "We will make some mistakes for sure, but if we learn from our missteps and follow the pathway my team has laid out, I’m hopeful we will end up in a good place for kids."
Critics of Anderson’s work say she has not done enough to earn respect from the families most affected by her changes. And, they warn that misstep could scuttle her efforts as the city schools move forward. This they say could be a tumultuous year.
"Cami Anderson does not listen to this community," said Lyndon Brown, PTA president at Thirteenth Avenue School, one of the schools Anderson closed in June. "Some parents raise questions that are never answered and others are left in the dark. How can you help but feel your children are being disenfranchised?"
Pedro Noguera, an urban education professor at New York University, backs many of Anderson’s policy decisions, but said change must be made through the community, not around it.
"Newark schools experienced a vigorous shakeup this past year, and Cami deserves praise for her urgency," Noguera said. "She must do more to engage parents as partners in this work. It’s vital to the long term success of her reforms."
Community engagement is a responsibility she takes seriously, said Anderson, who earns $247,000 a year as superintendent. For example, she created an office focused exclusively on parent outreach. Through it, small groups of moms, dads and grandparents toured schools affected by her policy changes.
Anderson also became part of the community she is trying to improve. She and her domestic partner, Jared Robinson, and their son, Sampson, 2 1/2, moved from Harlem to Newark shortly after her appointment.
One of Anderson’s most sweeping - and most controversial - reform initiatives was her decision to close a dozen schools with low test scores and dwindling enrollment and open eight schools with new principals, different teachers and more classroom resources.
Hundreds attended school board meetings to protest the closings because many of the affected schools had deep ties to their communities, such as Eighteenth Avenue School, which was built in the late 1800s.
Barbara Ervin has been an educator in Newark for 40 years and served as principal at Eighteenth Avenue for 9 of them. The office she recently packed up was covered in handmade cards and drawings from former students that she cared for like family.
"Dear Ms. E. You are a great principal. I love you," read one note.
Because some students there had troubled home lives, she said, many needed extra support from their teachers. Ervin said it was common for Eighteenth Avenue students who arrived at school without uniforms to get extra ones laundered by school staff.
"My staff was just like that. I don’t think twice about going into my own pocket to make sure students have what they need to do well in school," Ervin said. "You have to sweat the small stuff."
Unlike most administrators from the closed schools, Ervin has a new assignment this fall. She will become principal at Cleveland Avenue School, one of those Anderson is trying to remake.
Cleveland Avenue School will be outfitted with laptops, smartboards and wireless internet. The school day will be extended, health services will be offered for students and parents will have access to GED and financial literacy coursework.
Ervin said she is saddened by Anderson’s decision to close Eighteenth Avenue, but now has a rare opportunity to start fresh with teachers she selected.
"I’m looking for people who can demonstrate and articulate that kids come first," Ervin said. "I can teach you how to teach, I’ve done it before, but if that love of the children is not there among my new staff, this new school will never be a great school."
Boosting teacher quality in Newark is another priority for Anderson. Over the past year, she met more that 600 teachers at forums and brown-bag lunches, and plans to use their feedback to develop district policy.
Last year, for the first time, Anderson also allowed principals to select their teaching staff. Tenured teachers not picked were given temporary assignments at a cost to the district of $8 million because state law prevents Anderson from laying off the teachers who were not chosen.
Part of reason Anderson sought to close some schools and consolidate the district was to save money, she said. This past year, the district sent roughly one quarter of its $800 million budget to cover the education of students in Newark charter schools, and she said the district can no longer afford half-empty buildings.
To increase revenue by up to $700,000 a year, Anderson recently decided to lease space in district facilities to some of those charter schools, against the wishes of the district’s advisory school board.
This move smacks of disrespect for the community, said Joe Del Grosso, the president of Newark’s teachers union. "I understand Cami Anderson is working for the state of New Jersey because Newark is a state operated district, but sometimes I wish she’d just work for the people of Newark and take their wishes into account," Del Grosso said.
Anderson said she hopes her decisions will benefit the same objective — to have all Newark students graduate from high school ready to succeed in college without remediation. Currently, only half of Newark’s students graduate from high school, and only 40 percent of those students attend college.
Opening Bard Early College High School and three other secondary schools for Newark teens is part of the plan to increase the graduation rate, though general plans for new schools were initiated by her predecesor.
Bard High School’s mission reflects its name and offers junior and senior students the chance to earn associate degrees while working toward their high school diplomas. This year, juniors took a college-level sociology course on gender and history. Bard’s road to opening, however, was not easy. Newark’s advisory school board voted in April 2011 to block it’s approval before state education officials overruled the board, allowing the school to open as planned last fall.
Striking the appropriate balance between what the community says it wants and what district officials believe is best for the students is never easy, said Valerie Wilson, a longtime Newark resident and the district’s business administrator.
Newarkers, she said, have never been keen on change.
"This is a large system that you cannot stop on a dime and turn at will. You have to turn it gently as best you can," Wilson said.