Newark Super Drums Up Support for Sweeping Reforms

March 20, 2012

Newark schools superintendent Cami Anderson's announcement yesterday of the final details in her plans to reorganize New Jersey's largest district was almost as much about appearance as it was about substance.

The substance was significant: The outright closing of six school buildings; the "renewal" of eight more with new leadership, faculty and programs; and the expansion of both early childhood and high school options.

Similar to what she first proposed this winter, it would be the new superintendent's most sweeping moves yet in a district that has the attention of the Christie administration, if not the school reform movement nationwide.The substance was significant: The outright closing of six school buildings; the "renewal" of eight more with new leadership, faculty and programs; and the expansion of both early childhood and high school options.

But the choreography of the hour-long event at the Quitman Elementary School was notable, too, with Anderson introducing more than a dozen city leaders to voice their support for change from politicians to clergy to philanthropic leaders, from virtually every section of the city.

It was a far cry from the community showdown at Rutgers-Newark a month ago, where Anderson presented the first iteration of plan from a lone perch on a stage before a large audience that was far from welcoming.

Yesterday on a sunny schoolday morning, there were no catcalls or even hints of discord in the invitation-only crowd, a few of the most outspoken critics left outside to complain and the Newark Teachers Union a notable absence from the room.

Instead, it was a long train of support that had been noticeably missing from the first meeting, including three principals in the district, a half-dozen ministers, several of the largest foundations in the city, and some of the most outspoken politicians.

Mayor Cory Booker was an impassioned keynote, repeatedly citing what he called Anderson's "common sense" proposals to close or overhaul low-performing and under-enrolled schools and place the most qualified educators in the classroom.

With a nod to the challenges ahead, Booker implored the community to support the superintendent's changes.

"The success or failure of this plan is not going to be determined by the superintendent," he said. "It is going to be determined by the community and whether we stand up and not make it about her but about our children."

In a district that has been under state oversight for close to 20 years, there are plenty of challenges, from the political to the logistical. Anderson went out of her way yesterday to show her ability to adjust.

For one, the plan made some major changes from the initial blueprint proposed last month before the raucous crowd at Rutgers. One of the most contentious closings, the Miller Street School, has been taken off the table, although not ruled out for the future.

Still, that leaves six school buildings to be closed outright: Eighteenth Avenue, Burnett Street, Dayton Street, Martin Luther King, and the annexes at West Side and Barringer high schools.

The school closings are not likely to happen quietly, with Joseph Del Grosso, the Newark Teacher Union president, saying he would challenge the moves in court, if necessary. The union president said he was not invited to yesterday's event, something Anderson's staff did not dispute.

"This is better than the original plan, but it needs work," Del Grosso said in an interview. "I'm not going to buy into any plan that closes Newark public schools. I am still of the opinion that we can fix schools that are not performing."

"Will we challenge it? If necessary, we certainly will," he said of legal action. "This is not just automatic, this is far from settled."

Yet, this is also an interesting time with the union, with contract negotiations underway and the two sides scheduled to exchange bargaining proposals today. The 5,000-member union has been without a contract for more than a year.

In side agreements, the union and district have already agreed to some of the stipulations for Anderson's plans around extended hours in the new so-called "renew schools." Also, Anderson has proposed additional bonuses for teachers to work in those schools, something that Del Grosso yesterday said he was open to.

Anderson said she was cautious but remained hopeful about her talks with the union: "We have been talking with them quite a bit, and when we do, we are much likely to get where we need to go."

When asked about the union's past resistance, Anderson said: "I am one who believes in collaborating with the union. We will do what is best for kids."

Another tricky balance will be in Anderson's plans for tightening the assignment of teachers in the new alignment of schools, opening up new positions citywide but also requiring principals to agree to the placements. This year, that system has left more than 80 teachers unassigned and instead filling in at schools in a variety of support roles, at an extra cost of $8 million.

Anderson's new plan cited that the district as a whole is overstaffed by as many as 600 teachers, a number that would vastly expand that excess pool and its cost. She did not shy from that yesterday, conceding there would be sacrifices.

"We have experienced a 9 percent decrease in enrollment (over three years), and we have not experienced a 9 percent decrease in the number of teachers we have hired," Anderson said yesterday.

Much of the changes will be coming in the new "renew schools" in eight buildings: 13th Avenue, Peshine Avenue, Chancellor Avenue, Camden, Sussex Avenue, Quitman Street, Newton Street and Cleveland Avenue.

In each case there will be new principals and teachers, extended hours and additional student supports, all with the stated goal of raising student achievement to 50 percent proficiency on state tests in two years and 75 percent in four years. The average now is 20 percent, Anderson said.

In the audience yesterday was an experienced hand to the challenges facing Newark's schools, former deputy superintendent Anzella Nelms. Now working with the Newark Charter School Fund, Nelms was a top administrator under former superintendent Marion Bolden, who led the district for nine years.

Nelms cheered Anderson for putting forward constructive ideas both new and previously considered by Bolden, all with political support she had not seen in her years at the district's Cedar Street headquarters.

But she said even the easy changes can face resistance in a district that has seen many years of distrust.

"It will be an uphill battle," Nelms said. "It will be an uphill battle in changing the mindset of many people in the city who think we can do the same things . . . I think they truly do care, but they also want to be included so that they truly understand."