new era

‘All eyes are on Newark’: As the city regains control of its schools, a look at what’s to come

PHOTO: Newark Press Information Office
Newark children received a visit from Mayor Ras Baraka in March 2017.

For years, votes cast by Newark’s elected school board carried mostly symbolic weight. On Thursday, as the board reclaims full control of New Jersey’s largest school district after a 22-year state takeover, even its smallest decisions will acquire new significance.

A preview of that transformation was on display at a board meeting last week, as members debated when to hold their next round of elections. Moving them from April to November, when other local elections are held, could save the school district about $250,000 per election. But doing so could also politicize the board race, discouraging ordinary citizens from throwing their hats into the ring.

As they weighed their options, board member Crystal Fonseca urged her colleagues to choose carefully.

“Every decision we make reflects on what this board is doing with local control,” she said, moments before the board voted to keep the elections in April. “We’re totally responsible for every penny at this point on. We can’t point the finger anymore.”

The return to local control marks a watershed for Newark, a vote of confidence more than two decades after a state judge decried “failure on a very large scale” within its schools and “nepotism, cronyism and the like” among its school board. It comes as a number of states pivot away from takeovers — an extraordinary intervention whose outcomes have varied — and allow districts from Philadelphia to New Orleans to reclaim authority over their schools.

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In Newark, the state takeover had plodded on for years before a recent whirlwind of activity spurred by a $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2010 and a bipartisan political alliance between former Gov. Chris Christie and then-Mayor Cory Booker. The aggressive changes thrust Newark into the national spotlight while inflaming local parents and activists who opposed the closure of some neighborhood schools, the expansion of charter schools, and the hiring of expensive outside consultants.

Now, as Newarkers again steer the course of their school system, towering questions loom on the horizon.

Will the district maintain its recent academic gains under a yet-to-be-named superintendent answering to board members representing separate constituencies? Will it manage to shield school budgets from cuts even as more funds flow to charter schools? And will its school board avoid the type of scandals that precipitated the state takeover in 1995, when its members were accused of spending public money on expensive meals and conferences in Hawaii even as the vast majority of the district’s mostly poor students of color failed to pass basic proficiency tests?

“This is a monumental task,” said Tave Padilla, the board’s vice chair. “All eyes are on Newark.”

The board’s first order of business will be to choose a permanent replacement for Superintendent Christopher Cerf, who will step down Thursday, several months before his contract expires, to make way for a new schools chief. (His deputy, Robert Gregory, will act as interim superintendent through June.) Cerf, whom Christie appointed as Newark’s schools chief in 2015, had promised to help Newark regain control of its schools — a years-long process that culminated in September when state officials signed off on the transition.

What’s shaping the conversation: years of sweeping change

Cerf was previously the state education commissioner, where he joined Christie and Booker in devising an overhaul of Newark’s school system that Cerf called “whole-district reform.” Funded in part by Zuckerberg’s gift and a matching amount from other donors, the changes would eventually include performance-based teacher pay, a downsized central office, a single enrollment system for district and charter schools, and the shuttering of 11 district schools. (Last school year, Newark had 64 district schools.) The share of students in charter schools also doubled, with charters now enrolling about a third of Newark’s over 50,000 public-school students.

The changes ignited bitter opposition from the local teachers union and many community members. At one point, several students staged a sit-in at the district headquarters after Cami Anderson, the schools chief who enacted the new policies, stopped attending board meetings where she was drowned out by protestors.

PHOTO: Newark Press Information Office
Mayor Ras Baraka cut the ribbon on the Newark Public Schools’ new headquarters in January, along with outgoing Superintendent Christoper Cerf and members of the Newark school board.

During a press briefing Monday with Booker, now a U.S. senator, Cerf defended the changes made over the past seven years. He said that while officials could have done a much better job explaining the policies and listening to the public’s concerns, “sometimes change has casualties.”

“The measure of success here is not the degree of peace, harmony, or consensus,” Cerf said.

After the reforms began in 2011, students’ annual growth on state tests declined for three years before rising again in 2015, according to a recent study led by Harvard researchers, which tried to measure the impact of the changes. By 2016, students’ annual gains in English, but not math, were higher than comparable students across New Jersey, the researchers found. (A review of the study questioned whether the recent improvements can be linked to the reforms, and said that other New Jersey districts also made gains in 2015 after the state adopted new tests.)

Newark officials note the study did not include 2017 test scores, which went up in both English and math. They also point to other measures of recent progress, including the district’s 78 percent graduation rate — a nearly 20 percentage-point increase from 2011. The district is also retaining more of its highly rated teachers and fewer of those with poor ratings.

Meanwhile, Cerf has managed to ease some of the tensions that flared under Anderson, developing a cordial relationship with the school board and Mayor Ras Baraka, a former principal who was elected in 2014 after fiercely opposing Anderson’s policies. Under Cerf, the district adjusted the new enrollment system based on public feedback, and launched a “community schools” program with Baraka to bring extra social services to several schools in the South Ward, the city’s poorest section.

At a ribbon-cutting last week at the district’s new offices, Baraka said Cerf had done “awesome work.” But he also suggested that it is time for a change.

“Today marks a new day in the district,” he said. “Not just from an old building to a new building, but to a new perspective, a new journey, a new road that we all start out on here in the city of Newark.”

What to watch: the two-year transition ahead

As Newark regains control of its schools, it will be guided by a two-year transition plan created by the state with input from Newark officials.

The 73-page document details actions the district must take — including holding a public vote in November to determine whether the board will continue to be elected or appointed by the mayor. The plan also calls for a state-appointed monitor who will advise the district and track its progress until 2020. (The state selected Anzella King-Nelms, a retired Newark deputy superintendent, for that role.)

The plan also stipulates that several of the district’s current policies should remain in place for at least another year or two, including its approach to teacher evaluation and the joint district-charter enrollment system. “The details in the plan really dictate more of the same,” said Christopher Tienken, an associate professor of education administration at Seton Hall University who has been critical of the state takeover.

For now, while a firm hired by the school board conducts a national search for a new schools chief, the person in charge is Robert Gregory, Cerf’s former deputy.

The son of a Newark educator and the founding principal of American History High School, Gregory said he will devote special attention to recruiting and supporting strong educators. “I’m a people, not a programs, person,” said Gregory, who hopes to be considered for the permanent superintendent job.

The Newark Teachers Union negotiated a contract renewal with the district last year that maintains the performance bonuses while giving teachers more planning time. But recruitment remains a challenge, with fewer than two educators applying for each job opening. Teacher absenteeism is also high: Last school year, the average teacher missed nearly 17 work days, excluding family or medical leave, compared to an average of eight missed days due to illness or personal leave in most districts, according to a 2017 study.

But Gregory’s most daunting task may be helping the district set its budget.

State funding has been flat even as enrollment has grown in recent years, leading the district to sell off buildings, switch health-insurance providers, and relocate its offices to cut costs. The growth of the city’s charter-school sector has also drained district funds: During the current fiscal year, the district transferred $237 million of its $930 million budget to charters schools, a 160 percent increase over 2010.

As Gregory steps into his new role, he’s been meeting with regularly with the board, including at an all-day retreat Saturday. The test for him — and the permanent superintendent who will begin July 1 — will be to serve the board and partner with parents, the teachers union, civic groups and others without being distracted by conflicting demands, said Kenneth Wong, an education policy professor at Brown University who studies school governance.

“Oftentimes, it’s kind of a policy competition,” in districts with elected school boards, he said. “If you don’t have a clear vision, it’s very easy for the district to be pulled apart by all these competing interests.”

As they left last week’s school board meeting shortly before it ended around 10 p.m., Stephen and Tonya Outing seemed to grasp the enormity of the task facing Gregory — and all of Newark.

Two of their children attend the large Lafayette Street School and an older daughter graduated from American History High School while Gregory was in charge. (Stephen called him the “MVP” — most valuable principal.) While they feel the district is headed in the right direction, they ticked off a long list of improvements they hope to see under the new superintendent: better reading instruction, more teacher training, high-performing schools for families to choose from.

“He has a lot of work to do,” Tonya said.

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Transition Planner

‘It is so much work.’ Meet the state monitor trying to help Newark keep control of its schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Anzella King Nelms spoke to Newark parents and educators during a recent presentation organized by the Abbott Leadership Institute.

One day in 1995, state education officials arrived in Newark to begin the process of taking over the city school system, which had been deemed failing and mismanaged. Anzella King Nelms, a Newark schools official at the time, was there.

“I was in the superintendent’s conference room on the day that the state walked in to take over Newark,” Nelms said during a recent talk. “It was a day that our hearts dropped.”

More than two decades later, the state has finally ended its takeover. And it has appointed Nelms, a former Newark deputy superintendent, as its representative to help the district complete its return to local control.

“Today, I stand here representing the state,” Nelms told the audience. “How ‘bout that.”

On Feb. 1, Newark’s elected school board was restored to its full status as a board of education, following 22 years in a diminished advisory role. Many in Newark celebrated that day as a triumphant return to a locally run school system. But, as Nelms well knows, that was just the start of the return — and there is still potentially rocky terrain ahead.

In order to fully transition back to local control, the district and school board must abide by a two-year plan that sets milestones for them to meet and possible sanctions if they don’t. To help them stay on track, the plan calls for a “highly skilled professional” to act as a state monitor, compliance officer, and consultant rolled into one.

“This was essentially seen as a two-year insurance policy,” said Alan Sadovnik, an education and sociology professor at Rutgers University-Newark, referring to the transition plan and state monitor. “You simply could not give back total control until the district demonstrated that they were in fact able to operate themselves.”

The state chose Nelms as its highly skilled professional in Newark. But despite her crucial role, she’s mostly worked behind the scenes. (A state education department spokesman declined to make her available for an interview, saying people in her role don’t do interviews because “speaking to the press isn’t their core area of expertise.”)

However, Nelms gave a presentation on Saturday to some 40 parents, educators, and community activists at an event sponsored by the Abbott Leadership Institute, which offers trainings on school policy to the public. Chalkbeat attended the talk, during which Nelms gave an inside look at her efforts to help Newark get and keep control of its schools.

“Putting words on a paper and saying that you’re moving back to local control is one thing. Making it happen is another,” she said during the talk at Rutgers University-Newark. “And it is so much work.”

Each step of Newark’s release from state control is spelled out in its 73-page transition plan, which the state education department created last year with input from Newark district and city officials and after several public meetings. It details the many duties of the highly skilled professional, or HSP.

That person must help the district set its budget and establish strong relationships with the charter school and higher-education sectors, according to the plan. The HSP must also make sure the school board attends required trainings and does not overstep its authority, while mediating any conflicts that arise between the board and the superintendent, whom the board will appoint later this month from a list of candidates that includes the current interim superintendent, Robert Gregory. And the HSP must work with a new accountability office that will monitor the district’s progress, while flagging any possible ethics violations.

As a state monitor embedded in the district, the HSP could be seen as an occupying force. The state may have hoped to avoid that perception by appointing Nelms, who has roughly 40 years of experience as a Newark teacher, principal, and district official. It was a savvy choice, said Mary Bennett, another longtime Newark educator who was part of a committee that helped plan the return to local control.

“I don’t think they could have gotten someone with more understanding of the Newark community, the Newark context, and the Newark board of education than Ms. Nelms,” she said.

Since stepping into the role in February, Nelms has become intimately familiar with the transition plan, which she called a “precious document.”

At Saturday’s presentation, she held up a thick binder into which she’d sorted the plan into color-coded sections. She explained that at her cubicle at Newark Public Schools headquarters she has posted a blown-up copy of the state’s “accountability scorecard” — a measure of how faithfully Newark has carried out the plan, which stipulates, among other things, how the board should go about hiring a new superintendent and what trainings its members must undergo. (One requirement is a “review of past ethical lapses in the District.”)

If the district does not adhere to the plan, which also covers curriculum and budgeting, then it could face a series of escalating consequences. Those include extending the transition period, stepping up state oversight, or even reinstating state control — though that would be an extreme and unlikely move.

Many of the plan’s requirements center on the school board, which gained three new members and a new chairperson last month. As the board adjusts to its newly empowered role, Nelms’ job is to toggle between supervisor and coach.

So she observes their meetings and takes notes — “I record everything that I hear, see, and so on,” she said — arranging extra support in areas where she thinks board members need more guidance. One such area is recognizing the limits of their own authority, she said. (The board’s job is to hire a superintendent and sign off on policy decisions, while the superintendent is in charge of actually running the district.)

“There is a little misunderstanding here, so we’re working on that,” she said. She added, “They may make a misstep in thinking they have the power to do something, and we just have to carefully redirect them.”

If all goes well, the transition will officially end on Jan. 31, 2020. Then Newark’s schools will be fully under local control and Nelms’ job will be complete — a prospect she welcomes.

“I don’t want to have to continue in this position,” she told the audience on Saturday. “I want this district to totally be in your hands.”

Superintendent search

For the first time in a generation, Newark will pick its own schools chief. Meet the interim leader hoping to get the job.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

A. Robert Gregory, who became interim superintendent of the Newark school system in February, did not wait to shed the interim status before settling into the corner office reserved for superintendents.

He has adorned the walls with graduation pictures of him and his parents, awards he won during his nearly 20 years as a Newark teacher and principal, and a black-and-white photo of Muhammed Ali knocking out an opponent. On his desk he placed a well-worn copy of “Savage Inequalities,” whose inside cover contains an inscription his late father — himself a well-known Newark principal — had written when Gregory considered quitting during his second year of teaching: “Never give up on our people!”

“I’m very proud to be in this seat right now,” Gregory said during an interview last month in his office on the third floor of Newark Public Schools’ new downtown headquarters. “And I’m not trying to give it up.”

Newark regained authority over its schools this year after more than two decades of state control — making the next superintendent the first to be chosen locally in a generation. Whoever is selected will face the enormous task of forging a new path forward for New Jersey’s largest district, after wealthy outside donors and state-appointed leaders spent years reshaping its schools.

The city’s elected school board has until May 31 to hire a new superintendent. It has not yet announced the finalists of its national search, but Gregory is expected to be one of them. A Newark native with deep knowledge of its schools, he is considered a frontrunner — but one with some liabilities, who may be up against stiff competition.

Gregory is the handpicked successor of Christopher Cerf, the state-appointed superintendent who stepped down in February. Cerf and his predecessor, Cami Anderson, are associated with a series of controversial policies — closing low-performing schools, expanding the charter-school sector, trying to remove ineffective teachers — that were championed by so-called “education reformers” but fiercely opposed by the city teachers union and many Newark residents.

Besides his endorsement by Cerf, Gregory was also chosen as a “Future Chief” by the group Chiefs for Change, which has ties to the education-reform movement. Yet because of his local roots and relatively brief overlap with Cerf in the district office, he has retained the trust of many who might otherwise be wary of such associations — including the teachers union.

He is also revered by many of the students, parents, and educators he’s worked with over the years and has used his time as interim chief to raise his public profile. On Saturday alone, he made appearances at a school-board retreat, a robotics competition, a teacher hiring fair, a South Ward schools event, an LGBTQ student celebration, and a high-school jazz concert.

Still, he has relatively little experience as a top district official. By contrast, one of the other candidates the board is said to be considering, Andres Alonso, previously ran the Baltimore school system.

And Gregory may not be the only local candidate in the running. Another rumored contender is Roger Leon, a former Newark principal and current assistant superintendent who was recommended by the board to become superintendent in 2015 but was turned down by the state.

Now, as the superintendent search enters its final stage, any jockeying among candidates and lobbying of board members is happening out of public view. But whoever is hired will instantly become the public face of the district and the person whom board members, interest groups, and politicians turn to as they try to influence the district’s direction.

“Whoever becomes superintendent of Newark Public Schools is going to have to navigate through this maze of nonsense,” said Loucious Jones, a longtime parent-activist who said the challenge will be to put students ahead of politics. “Can you be true to the children of Newark? Can you be their advocate?”

From teacher to leader

One bright morning last month at the Sussex Avenue Renew School, Gregory was seated inside Principal Darleen Gearhart’s office, talking about roller skates.

He has visited about two dozen elementary and middle schools since February. For Gregory, who is most familiar with high schools, the 90-minute tours have allowed him to meet new principals and start forming what he calls a “heat map” — a rough grouping of schools according to how much support and supervision they need. For principals, the visits have provided a preview of the man who could become their next boss.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Gregory reviewing school data with Sussex Avenue Renew School Principal Darleen Gearhart.

At Sussex Avenue, a once-troubled school that has steadily improved under Gearhart, Gregory sat next to the principal and reviewed the school’s rising test scores. “Phenomenal,” he said, before giving Gearhart a fist bump. But Gregory was equally impressed when she explained how she had taken her teachers’ suggestion and bought roller skates for students to use during phys-ed class.

“Roller skating, I love it!” Gregory said. “But the better thing is, your teachers thought about it. So you’re tapping into what motivates them. Smart — Ed Leadership 101.”

Gregory has honed his own leadership style in the two decades that he’s worked in Newark schools.

As an English and social-studies teacher at Camden Middle School in the early 2000s, he led his students to victory in a statewide civics competition. One year, as part of that contest, they lobbied the city to install a traffic light at an intersection where a student had been killed.

He motivated students by being forthright with them, said Khadijat Yekeen, Gregory’s former student at Camden.

“He’d tell us the reality is we’re already at a disadvantage because the color of our skin and the city we come from — but we can push past that,” recalled Yekeen, who credits Gregory with inspiring her to become an English teacher.

In 2006, he became the founding principal of a new magnet school, American History High School. Like other magnet schools, it has competitive admissions, though Gregory said it “wasn’t a real magnet school” because many admitted students entered far behind academically. Still, any future superintendent will likely have to address complaints by parents and some educators that magnet schools exclude too many Newark students.

At American History, Gregory went to great lengths to support and encourage the faculty, said Hassanah Blake, a former teacher there.

Gregory would email teachers articles about their craft or bring in books from home and occasionally took over a class himself so he could model certain techniques. During Teacher Appreciation Week, he planned a different treat each day — Dunkin’ Donuts gift cards, pep rallies, free professional massages.

He also allowed teachers to design their own curriculums as long as they ignited students’ interest, said Blake, who is now a vice principal at University High School.

“The autonomy he gave us is what allowed the magic to happen,” she said. “That was a powerful experience.”

Still, if teachers failed to meet his expectations and did not show a willingness to improve, he would encourage them to leave — or force them to. Gregory said he was one of the few principals to successfully bring a charge against a tenured teacher before the state’s tenure law was changed in 2012.

“I will never back down from that fight,” he said last month. “We can build skill; we can’t build will.”

As with other tactics he used as a principal, they could encounter new complications and resistance if enacted across the district.

Politics 101

In 2015, Gregory made the leap from principal to district leader — a role, he’s finding, that is infinitely more political than running a single school or classroom.

After Gregory served as assistant superintendent of high schools for less than two years, Cerf promoted him to deputy superintendent last June. In effect, Cerf had chosen his replacement if he stepped down early — which he did in February, in an effort to jump-start the district’s transition back to local control. (Technically, the school board could have chosen someone else to serve as interim superintendent, but its members voted for Gregory.)

Still, Gregory does not see his role as simply extending Cerf’s legacy. Gregory said his predecessors had achieved some positive results, but he plans to chart a different course.

“I would definitely not characterize myself as a ‘reformer,’” he said, “because I don’t believe in a playbook. I believe in differentiated leadership and instruction based on the situation.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Gregory observing a lesson at Sussex Avenue Renew School.

Unlike self-described reformers, Gregory said he’s not interested in overhauling the district or wading into pitched policy battles. For instance, he called arguments over the merits of traditional versus charter schools “a stupid fight to have.” Instead, his focus is on applying his approach as principal to the entire district — recruiting and supporting strong teachers and allowing high-performing schools to earn autonomy.

“The next wave of this work is developing people,” he said. “How do we make our teachers better? How do we make our principals better so we can get better outcomes for kids?”

But the flipside of developing talent — how to determine who is a good teacher (or not) and what to do with those who receive low ratings — remains hotly contested. The next superintendent will undoubtedly be dragged into the political fray over that and other issues.

The Newark Teachers Union, for example, opposed Anderson and Cerf at every turn. Although Cerf promoted Gregory, NTU President John Abeigon said he does not associate the protégé with his predecessors. Of Gregory, Abeigon said, “He’s professional, he’s affable, he gets it.” But the union leader said he would push hard on Gregory or whoever becomes superintendent to undo any remnants of the previous era.

“Eliminate anything and everything associated with the last eight years of corporate reform,” Abeigon said, “and terminate anyone who was hired by them.”

For his part, Mayor Ras Baraka has promised “to have as heavy a hand as possible” in the district, even though he has no direct authority over it. He joined a North Ward councilman and charter-school supporters in backing the three winning candidates in last month’s school board election. And he helped choose a controlling four of the seven members of the committee that selected the superintendent finalists, whom the full board will vote on in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, the board is eager to reassert itself after offering only suggestions during the 22 years of state dominance. Board member Tave Padilla said the board will not interfere with the day-to-day operation of the district, but board members do expect to have a say in district policy and finances.

“The superintendent’s office has to come to the understanding that we’re not advisory anymore,” Padilla said. “We’re not going to advise you that this is what we want to do — we’re going to tell you.”

Local support

As Gregory tries to hang onto his perch in the superintendent’s office, he may end up competing with colleagues in the district.

Several board members and community leaders have made clear that even though the state required a national superintendent search, they would prefer a homegrown leader. Any local candidates will come with their own bases of support.

Joanne Gobin, a former parent at American History High, said the possibility that Gregory will become the next superintendent is one reason she keeps her children in Newark schools. Cheryl Whitley Crawford, who taught alongside Gregory at Harold Wilson Middle School in the 1990s, said he’s the only colleague she remembers from that time.

“I swear by him,” she said. “He can turn this district around.”

During his visit to Sussex Avenue Renew School in April, Gregory stopped in a hallway to hug a kindergarten teacher who said, “I know this guy!” On a stairwell, he embraced a school safety agent whose nieces and nephews he once taught, and whose mother was an usher in his childhood church.

But for all his local credentials, Gregory’s fate is ultimately up to the school board — a fact that Sussex Avenue’s chief innovation officer, Christopher Constantino, alluded to at the end of Gregory’s visit.

“I wish you good luck, man,” Constantino told him. “I hope you get it.”


Clarification: This story was updated to note that the Newark school board voted for Gregory to fill the role of interim superintendent.