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The Newark School Reform Wars | The Nation

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The Newark School Reform Wars

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Booker and Zuckerberg

Former Newark Mayor Cory Booker, left, and Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)

Every time Newark shows up on the national radar—from Cory Booker’s celebrity turn to Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to Ras Baraka’s victory in the mayoral race earlier this month—its schools have been in the spotlight. In Mayor-elect Baraka, the school reform project inaugurated under Booker and Governor Chris Christie has met its most formidable opponent yet. But despite Baraka’s win, not to mention a flurry of sit-ins, walk-outs, protests and pickets, the transformation of the school system into a showcase of neoliberal ideas about education is unlikely to stop anytime soon.

That’s troubling news for students in the district schools, such as those at the Hawthorne Avenue School.

Hawthorne could have been a model for urban education. The Newark, New Jersey, K–8 school has raised its test scores in each of the last three years. The hallways that teachers describe as “chaos” four years ago are now quiet, save occasional bursts of laughter. Its performance on last year’s tests, on which it met all state benchmarks, compelled an assistant superintendent to make a personal visit to congratulate the faculty.

So the community was stunned when the district leveled the educational equivalent of a death sentence on the school.

At a public forum last December, the Chris Christie–appointed superintendent Cami Anderson announced that about a quarter of Newark’s schools would be closed, repurposed, consolidated or otherwise transformed. Hawthorne would lose grades 5–8, and two outside operators would assume management of younger grades. Every teacher would have to reapply.

“It won’t be Hawthorne anymore,” says Grace Sergio, a Hawthorne parent association leader whose eighth-grade son plays basketball and often stays at school till well after six. “This is a village.”

Since principal Grady James took the reins in 2010, the school has experienced a renaissance. “It was failing badly when he first started,” says Sergio. “He’s turned the school around.”

Housed in a stately though decaying four-story brick schoolhouse built in 1895, Hawthorne draws its enrollment from the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Newark’s impoverished South Ward. Nearly 90 percent of its pupils are African-American and 94 percent are economically disadvantaged. Although less than a third of its students score proficient in reading, Hawthorne’s growth puts it in the ninety-fourth percentile of comparable schools statewide. Its roster has grown consistently for three years.

Now the school is in limbo. “Teachers don’t know where they’re going, students don’t know where they’re going,” says Sergio.

Why has this school, whose academic gains outstrip those of every school in its local peer group, been targeted for turnover? Parents have lobbied officials, penned letters and protested to get an answer, but Superintendent Anderson hasn’t relented. “She doesn’t know what our kids need,” says Sergio.

The upheaval at Hawthorne comes amidst one of the most dizzying spells of school reform a city has seen since Hurricane Katrina turned New Orleans into a laboratory for market-based reforms.

In January, the district suspended Hawthorne’s principal and four others after they inveighed against One Newark, the reorganization plan. Superintendent Anderson’s appearance at community forums generates such protest that she’s stopped attending them altogether. Reforms under her tenure have spurred marches and student walk-outs. In April, seventy-seven faith leaders signed a letter urging Anderson to halt One Newark for “producing irreversible changes and fomenting widespread outrage.”

On May 20, members of the Newark Students Union overtook a district meeting chanting demands for One Newark’s repeal and Anderson’s ouster. The board members filed out after a few minutes, and the students stayed the night.

Amidst all this, Anderson has moved to lay off more than a thousand teachers over three years, an attempt to plug a budget deficit driven by the costs of the burgeoning charter school sector. Students who leave the district for charters—privately managed nonprofit schools exempt from some regulations—take 90 percent of their funding with them. A quarter of Newark students currently attend charters, a share that will rise to nearly 40 percent by 2016.

As it happens, Mayor-elect Ras Baraka was the principal at Hawthorne before taking the reins at Central High School. The son of the late radical poet Amiri Baraka, he’s used his public school credentials to assail the reforms Anderson and Christie have championed. Baraka’s education agenda begins with a moratorium on One Newark. “It’s drastic and radical,” Baraka says. “It completely disrupts families’ lives.” Within a week of his election, Baraka unveiled his own community-driven schools blueprint, the Newark Promise, which would push for expanded services and local control.

But since Newark’s school system has been under state control since 1995, Baraka’s entrée presents more questions than answers. “I’m glad that he got in, but I know that he personally can’t do anything because we’re state-run,” Sergio says. “Well, he can fight with us.”

* * *

Newarkers can point to two signal events, both in 2010, that ushered in the era of major reform: Chris Christie’s rise to governor and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to reform the Newark school system.

Zuckerberg announced his massive gift, Christie and then-mayor Cory Booker by his side, on a broadcast of Oprah. The trio, Oprah said, were “putting politics aside to help turn around the failing public schools in Newark.”

Although Christie was cutting nearly a billion dollars from New Jersey’s education budget, including over $40 million from the Newark schools he found “absolutely disgraceful,” Zuckerberg’s fortune gave Booker the political cover to endorse Christie’s education politics. “Booker used that spectacle to pronounce that he was in favor of the school reform project,” says Junius Williams, a Newark attorney and civil rights veteran.

Booker’s team established the nonprofit Foundation for Newark’s Future to distribute the young billionaire’s gift and matching donations. One of its first mandates was to recruit a new superintendent. The state selected Cami Anderson, a hard-driving former Booker campaign adviser and New York superintendent who then oversaw education at Rikers Island. In a 2010 e-mail, Booker aide Bari Mattes wrote that the Broad Foundation, a big giver to education reform, was “very interested in knowing who the Superintendent is going to be.” Anderson’s lengthy reform pedigree satisfied Broad, which provided generous early funding.

But who would get the dough? As Mattes emphasized in another e-mail, “MZ’s money is not going in to classrooms.” It was soon clear that Zuckerberg’s money wasn’t going to patch holes in buildings that need a district-estimated $1.3 billion in repairs, or hire support staff for the fifth-poorest youth population in the country.

In fact, not a cent of Zuckerberg’s money has gone toward hiring counselors, social workers or nurses. Meanwhile, “there have been DRAMATIC cuts to wraparound services,” wrote Mike Maillaro, Newark Teachers Union’s director of communication and research, in an e-mail. Last year, every attendance counselor in the district was eliminated.

Hawthorne Avenue reports losing eight support staff members since 2011, including a guidance counselor and two instructional coaches. The school has neither a music teacher nor a librarian.

Zuckerberg’s money would instead “create systemic education reform in Newark.” In 2011, it was reported that a full third of the foundation’s cash had found the pockets of consultants. As Dale Russakoff recently reported in a lengthy New Yorker article, that total now sits at about $20 million.

Though a smattering of grants have benefitted local causes—after-school yoga ($31,000), book drives ($1.2 million), new district schools ($2.1 million) and sundry others—over 40 percent of the money granted to organizations has left the state. Outside talent and recruitment agencies, for instance, raked in over $4 million to align district staffing with Anderson’s politics.

But the most consequential early grant landed close to home. In its first year, the FNF directed $1.86 million to a previously unheard-of consulting firm, Global Education Advisors, for a district audit. The company was founded by Chris Cerf, an adviser to Booker whom Governor Christie had just appointed to education commissioner. Cerf claimed his “very brief period” with the group wouldn’t influence his role, but in his official capacity he’d oversee every recommendation his former company made. (The audit also received FNF-directed funding from the Broad Foundation, whose “Superintendents Academy” Cerf attended in 2004.)

The report would become the opening salvo in the battle to transform Newark Public Schools, and an indication of reforms to come.

* * *

By early 2012, with a new superintendent and gobs of philanthropic cash at hand, Newarkers were anxious to hear what was next. Anderson held a community meeting to reveal her restructuring plan, the fruit of the FNF-funded audit.

“It was such an outrage the way she did it,” recalls Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University who was then leading a Newark school improvement initiative. “She announced this major reorganization plan before about a thousand people, took no questions, then walked out the door,” he says. “I’d never seen anything so disrespectful.”

The plan sparked protest. Six schools would be closed and eight more would be “renewed”—educators and administrators forced to reapply, a process that has displaced hundreds of teachers.

Meanwhile, seven charter campuses opened their doors in 2012. Though the privately managed charter sector had been growing for years, the reorganization plan intensified the competition between charter and district schools for students and their funding.

Today that process is accelerating. One Newark reprises the previous plan, with four schools to be closed (or “repurposed”) and nine “renewed,” but it adds a novel element: three district schools are slated to be taken over entirely by charter schools. At Hawthorne, TEAM academy charter will operate grades K–1, while the K–4 will remain a district school under new administration.

As one sector wanes and the other waxes, demand for well-resourced charter schools has increased. “The 60 percent in the now-downsized district,” says Williams, referring to future population projections, “will always be running for the resources that are necessary for the students who are left.”

Newark’s charter sector receives millions in philanthropic support on top of per-pupil funding. Donations tied to FNF have brought more than $21 million to charter schools, including an early $16 million from Wall Street donors such as venture capitalist John Doerr. The Newark Charter School Fund, where FNF’s current CEO served as vice president of finance and operations, has received over $4 million from FNF to grow the charter sector.

Though Newark welcomed its first charter school campuses in 1997, over 40 percent of them have opened in the last four years. “The Zuckerberg money came in,” said New Jersey’s charter school chief Amy Ruck in a recent report, “and, suddenly, everyone wanted in.”

The proliferation of union-free charters worries district teachers. “One Newark is essentially the beginning of the dismantlement of public education in Newark,” says Newark Teachers Union president Joe Del Grosso, who calls Anderson “a drum major for charter schools.” The district points out that “all charter growth is determined by the state.”

Anderson justifies charter growth as an effort “to align supply with demand.” This February she sought a waiver to skirt tenure law to lay off nearly a third of Newark’s district school teachers, based not on seniority but “performance” measures. “Families are ‘voting with their feet’ in search of excellence,” reads the district’s rationale for the layoffs.

These efforts follow a celebrated 2012 teacher’s contract agreement, which Zuckerberg’s money helped pay for, to the tune of $48 million. Much of that consists of retroactive teacher pay, but the contract notably gives test scores weight in determining who gets bonuses and who gets labeled ineffective—a policy goal of reformers, but not the legal means for imposing mass layoffs.

The agreement between the district and FNF also carries an unusual stipulation: unless the foundation “in its sole discretion, is satisfied that the successor of any key personnel,” including Anderson, “has comparable quality and commitment and is likely to be effective” it “reserves the right to suspend payments.”

* * *

For decades, Jersey education politics hinged on a decades-long series of state Supreme Court decisions, called Abbott v. Burke, that mandated supplementary state spending in high-need districts.

Christie never bothered with the Abbott mandates. When a state judge scolded the governor in 2011 for underfunding public schools by $1.6 billion, Christie’s spokesman scoffed at “the failed assumption of the last three decades that more money equals better education.”

But the Abbott program involved more than funding. “We had something called whole school reform,” says Williams, who from 2000 to 2005 chaired the organization that defends Abbott’s mandates. “We had to bring in more counselors, social workers, parent liaison, tutors,” Williams says. “All of these things were part of the Abbott program.”

Such concerns have taken a backseat to the choice-based policies now in vogue, a paradigm shift best illustrated in the birth and demise of the once-promising Global Village Zone project.

Spearheaded by the NYU professor Noguera in 2010, the initiative sought to meet the social and emotional needs of children first, from providing eyeglasses to securing housing assistance. “We had to devise ways to address non-academic needs,” says Noguera. “That’s part of what got many in the community excited.”

Drawing from the famed Harlem Children’s Zone, Global Village oversaw both administration and instruction at seven Newark schools. At Central High, Global Village provided extra school time and developed programs to improve school culture. “That was a blessing for us,” says Mayor-elect and former Central Principal Baraka, who boasts of increasing graduation rates from around 50 percent in 2007 to over 80 percent now.

“It made me a better leader and a more informed principal,” says Baraka. “We talked about relevance. How do you begin to teach black and brown kids who are impoverished? What strategies do you have to employ?”

Global Village’s prospects changed with Anderson’s entrée in 2011. “The work we were doing she didn’t value,” Noguera says. “It was at odds with her whole outlook.”

District restructuring plans further dimmed Global Village’s hopes. Four of its partner schools would see their faculty replaced. “There would no longer be a need for GVZ’s services,” NPS spokeswoman Chanelle Figueroa says, “nor did the student outcomes support renewing their contract.”

The final blow came when the Ford Foundation, the project’s major benefactor, balked at continuing funding. “They wanted a signal from the district that our work was in alignment,” says Noguera.

The signal never came. Ford’s last grants to the Global Village project came in 2011, the year it awarded the FNF $1.1 million for extended school time. The Ford Foundation claims its grant to FNF continued Global Village’s efforts to expand learning time. But the rest of Global Village’s initiatives—from health services to professional development—fell victim to the district’s shifting priorities. Anderson’s handpicked renew schools began receiving extra time and other wraparound services that Global Village had promised. In 2012, Global Village disbanded.

“It’s reflective of a larger problem across the country with the way we approach school reform,” Noguera says now. “It’s often driven by these outsiders who have no ties, no history with a community, no long-term relationship.”

Global Village’s demise also highlighted what some might call the hypocrisy of the market-based reform movement, which consistently emphasizes that its sole purpose is to improve the lives of poor children. While Noguera’s initiative bore a strong resemblance to the Harlem Children’s Zone, in its holistic philosophy toward urban education as well as in its name, it differed in one salient aspect: Global Village worked in district schools, not charters. Perhaps that difference helps explain why the school reform movement that celebrates Harlem Children’s Zone was happy to see Global Village languish.

* * *

“Choice” is the byword of Newark’s reform proponents: schools open and close depending on the flow of families. Yet those who’d prefer neighborhood public schools see their choices dwindling.

“Choosing a public school means that my daughter would have to take two buses to a school that’s not in her neighborhood,” says Newark parent Sharon Smith, whose parent engagement group PULSENJ recently joined a federal civil rights complaint over school closures. “The only thing that’s available to my daughter are the charter schools.”

Smith lives in Newark’s South Ward, an epicenter of charter growth. Under One Newark, three South Ward schools will close and three more will see charters move in—including Hawthorne Avenue and Madison Avenue, the two district schools closest to Smith.

Nearby Bragaw elementary will also come under TEAM charter management. Parent Tawanda Sheard describes the journey her fourth-grade daughter would take to attend the closest district school: “Abandoned houses, liquor stores, guys on the corner”—and a jaunt over Interstate 78, which bisects the neighborhood.

“Once this plan goes through,” Smith says, “the South Ward will never be the same.”

Some don’t see that as a problem. Former Deputy Commissioner of Education Smarick wrote in 2012: “Chartering can replace the district. And it can happen in Newark.” Appointed in 2010, the self-described “gung-ho reformer” promptly expanded the state’s charter office.

Prior to his appointment he’d written a punchy manifesto, “Wave of the Future,” which laid out in plain terms how “charter schools should replace failing urban schools.” The process meant securing friendly leadership, attracting big-name charters and roping in philanthropic allies. As the district becomes a “financially unsustainable marginal player,” he wrote, “eventually the financial crisis will become a political crisis.”

Smarick, like many, believes Newark charters produce better results. He cites a national study, CREDO, which found students in Newark charters gaining the equivalent of seven months in reading and nine in math, compared to virtual counterparts.

These numbers, however, reflect substantially different testing populations. About 15 percent of district students have special needs, compared to under 9 percent of those in charters. One in ten district students is an English language learner, compared to less than 1 percent of charter students.

All in all, no Newark charter teaches the same share of the neediest pupils as the average district school.

Bruce Baker, professor of education at Rutgers Graduate School of Education, has co-written several reports analyzing One Newark. His main concern is that it “turn[s] over a significant number of schools to charter operators who historically have never served similar populations.”

Charter operators will enter four campuses under One Newark. North Star Academy, for instance, will take on management at Alexander Street School. Nearly 90 percent of students at Alexander qualify for free lunch, which indicates the lowest income bracket. The lowest-income students, by contrast, make up about two-thirds of North Star’s enrollment. Similarly, Alexander Street enrolls a slightly larger percentage of students with special needs than do the nine schools in the North Star network.

“I don’t think there’s any basis for the suggestion that these charter operators can do well by the kids they’ve already left behind,” Baker says. “The ones that have had high performance generally serve a much lower-need student population.” In an e-mail, a North Star representative disputed that characterization, arguing that many district students are inappropriately classified with special needs, and that North Star free-lunch students perform as well as reduced-lunch students.

But the concerns of district school parents are more immediate. Sonja Miller is the mother of a seventh-grade boy with a cognitive impairment who has attended Hawthorne since first grade. “He loves it here,” Miller says. But after the school loses grades 5–8, “they don’t know where they’ll send him.”

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Miller worries that the school shuffle will drive her son to a school ill-equipped to serve his needs. “You gotta get used to him,” Miller says. “If you don’t understand him, he’s going to shut you down.” Although One Newark requires charter schools to accept proportionate shares of students with special needs, she’s aware of existing disparities. “I know there’s a lot of charter schools don’t accept special education students,” she says resignedly. “It’s still up in the air.”

Still, thousands of parents have reportedly crowded onto waitlists for charters, drawn by plentiful resources, high staff-to-pupil ratios and orderly hallways. Their continued expansion, says Baker, will mean “increased shares of kids with moderate or severe disabilities” in district schools. District documents show nearly all of the students with the most severe disabilities entering district high schools in coming years.

“Those are the children that need more and they’re getting less,” says Williams. “That’s what’s happening with the school reform in Newark now. And it’s going to be heightened under the One Newark program.”

* * *

Newark now finds itself with a mayor whose authority is circumscribed by state control pitted against a governor whose attention is divided between scandal and 2016. Union chief Del Grosso has suggested to his members that Anderson’s departure is imminent, but the superintendent has made no indication that One Newark will change course.

But Baraka has the bully pulpit. “A new mayor could champion what’s going on in neighborhood,” says Williams. Baraka chose Lauren Wells, who administrated Global Village during its tenure, to help pen his education plan. And he’s vowed to better involve the community in school governance. “We don’t have to give up on the public school system,” he says.

Parents haven’t declared him a savior just yet, though. “He might be able to put pressure, but it’s not going to change anything,” says Sergio. Adds fellow parent Sheard: “If this plan goes through, it’s going to be hard to get the schools back.”

 

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