Newark School Boss Cami Anderson Still Faces Harsh Criticism After Contract Renewal
Jessica Calefati | The Star-Ledger
NEWARK — Marcia Howard waited four hours for her turn to speak at a recent Newark school board meeting because the veteran teacher was determined to tell the public how proud she is to work at Peshine Avenue School.
When she stepped to the microphone, Howard described a revolution in the school culture at Peshine, known as one of the city’s worst schools.
"We have gotten together to see change, a positive change," said Howard, who has been teaching in the district for 29 years and attributed the unlikely improvements to policies implemented by Superintendent Cami Anderson.
Some members of the audience that night didn’t want to hear it, including brash-talking city activist Donna Jackson who loudly interrupted, forcing a school board member to slam a gavel to restore order at the meeting.
"Cami called your school and told you to come up here and say it’s doing good when it ain’t," Jackson declared. "Last year, your school was doing bad, and now she brought in (someone new) and we’re supposed to believe it’s doing well? Bull crap."
Anderson’s contract was renewed by the state several weeks ago but she continues to face a torrent of criticism, including a recent no-confidence vote from the city’s advisory school board and a city council resolution halting all new school changes.
Among a dozen educators interviewed, as well as parents, city school officials and members of Anderson’s senior staff, there is strong belief that her plan to remake the district is working. But she is still opposed by a stubborn, vocal group of officials and parents who think she fails to seek enough input from the community and sometimes does not consider the impact of her changes on surrounding neighborhoods.
"The norm here had been chaos, but we’ve hit a reset button," said Chaleeta Barnes, principal at Peshine. "My scholars are more calm and they’re starting to believe in themselves. Anyone who comes in has to see the difference."
Peshine is one of a dozen schools Anderson targeted last year for closure, consolidation or renewal because of low enrollment and low test scores. She fired Peshine’s former principal, merged the school with another struggling school and asked Barnes to lead the new Peshine.
Barnes, 34, grew up in Edison but has family in Newark and said she feels she understands the city and the challenges its youngest learners face.
"Some of my students have no food and no lights on at home. I have some third graders looking after their 3- and 4-year-old siblings. Many come in tired and hungry," Barnes said. "Before we could even think about preparing for a test, we had to address these needs."
Last year’s standardized test scores are not available yet, so it’s too soon to know if the results mirror the belief that Peshine has improved.
Barnes attended the school board meeting where her parents and teachers were shouted down and called Jackson’s reaction "disheartening." Some parents who had signed up to speak backed-out because of the disruptive crowd. Jackson could not be reached for comment.
Peshine’s progress is impressive, said Antoinette Baskerville Richardson, the city’s advisory school board chairwoman, but fixing a single school isn’t enough to convince her that Anderson is the right person to lead the district.
"Progress in individual pockets is certainly admirable, but there are larger questions to answer, like what it means for the stability of our neighborhoods when we close their schools," Baskerville Richardson said.
She also takes issue with Anderson’s handling of last year’s multi-million dollar budget gap, her decision to lay-off dozens of administrators — many of whom are city residents with children enrolled in the public schools — and her use of consultants.
Because Newark is a state-run district, the city’s school board has little say over Anderson’s tenure.
Anderson was hired by Gov. Chris Christie, and earlier this month, he said he thought Anderson’s performance had been strong and didn’t care whether Newarkers liked her or not.
"We do not savor the renewal of the superintendent’s contract, but the governor’s statements do not dissuade us from focusing on our primary responsibility to oversee the delivery of services to over 30,000 students in Newark’s schools and to work in conjunction with Cami Anderson wherever possible," Baskerville Richardson said.
In an interview with The Star-Ledger, Anderson said she is not deterred by her critics and remains committed to working with the city leaders who have spoken out against her.
Efforts to improve troubled city schools by first hiring innovative, ambitious principals to lead those schools have been more successful than she anticipated, Anderson said.
"We have to make bold moves to gain the confidence of families we ‘re trying to attract back or convince to stay in the district," she said. "And sometimes, those changes make people uncomfortable."
Peshine is not the only school that has benefitted from Anderson’s policies.
Parents from half a dozen other schools across the city also spoke at the May board meeting — the last one of last school year — to praise improvements they had noticed in their schools.
Speaking at the meeting over chants of "Go Away," Mernali Cruz said she would recommend Camden Street School to any other parent, in part because of how much she respected new school Principal Sam Garrison.
Like Barnes, Garrison inherited a school in trouble.
More than 90 percent of the PreK-8 students at Camden qualify for free and reduced lunch, and nearly half of the students have special needs. During the school year prior to Garrison’s arrival, just 17 percent of Camden students passed their state standardized tests in language arts.
For the first time in Camden Street School history, Garrison decided to integrate students with behavioral disabilities into regular classrooms. Keeping those students contained in special education classes was a pipeline to prison for many of them, Garrison said.
He has also invited parents to spend more time at the school. Garrison has hosted lunches and dinners for parents and students to attend together after school or on the weekends. The programs have become so popular, that enrollment in the school this year jumped.
"Enrollment is up so much this year that I’m looking for more desks," Garrison said. "Parents come in every day telling us ‘I want my child in Camden Street School because of the values this school is built on.’"
It’s too soon to know if the changes at Peshine, Camden and other schools will result in lasting success for the district, but some say that because she is trying to change entrenched attitudes and tackle immense problems, Anderson will continue to face pushback for a long time — regardless of her record.
Clement Price, a Rutgers University Newark professor and city historian, said Newark will always have a rancorous element whether or not there are legitimate successes to applaud or not. Sometimes, Newarkers simply want to yell at the person in charge.
"Over the two years Cami Anderson has been here, she has sought to ramp up the district to get things done quickly in the face of considerable pressure," Price said. "This city has a fascination with shouting against the empire. In this case, the empire happens to be a superintendent trying to change things for the better."