a matter of time

Newark Teachers Union calls for end to extended-school-day programs, citing contract violations

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon called the extended-day programs "a failure."

The head of the Newark Teachers Union is calling on the district to abolish school-improvement efforts that ask teachers at certain schools to work longer hours in return for extra pay.

About 30 district schools have extended days, which teachers must agree to in writing each year. According to an email that the union president sent to the district’s interim superintendent on Tuesday, some principals pressured teachers to sign those agreements this week before they have had a chance to look for positions at other schools.

But the union chief, John Abeigon, has decided to use that grievance to renew past calls to dismantle all of the district’s extended-time programs entirely. In his email to Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory, Abeigon called the programs “the last vestiges of a failed reform model” enacted by Cami Anderson, a former state-appointed superintendent with whom the union clashed bitterly.

Now that Newark’s elected school board has regained control of the schools, Abeigon said the district should restore an after-school initiative favored by the union and scrap the extended-day model.

“It’s a failure,” Abeigon said in an interview. “Now we’re trying to take advantage of the return to local control to get rid of it.”

The extended time was built into a 2012 contract negotiated by Anderson and the teachers union, which was hailed nationally as a model of district-labor cooperation. Under the contract, the superintendent could designate a limited number of so-called “Turnaround” schools whose academic performance needed to improve. In exchange for a $3,000 bonus, teachers who signed an annual agreement would work up to an hour longer each day and attend training sessions in the summer and on some weekends. The schools also were freed from some contract rules around scheduling, making them similar to charter schools that generally are not restricted by teachers contracts.

Some schools were insulted by the Turnaround label, sparking student protests. In some cases, teachers who refused to sign the agreements were transferred to other Turnaround schools, where they reportedly operated on different schedules than teachers who had signed on.

Still, about two-thirds of surveyed teachers said the extra time with students was valuable, according to a 2016 study commissioned by the district that looked at schools — including Turnaround schools and those in another school-improvement program, called “Renew” — where teachers agreed to extended schedules. Last year, the union and district negotiated a new teachers contract that goes to 2019 and includes both the Turnaround and Renew programs.

In response to Abeigon’s call Tuesday to do away with extended schedules, district officials pointed to last year’s agreement.

“The district signed a contract in 2017 with the Newark Teachers Union that included the opportunity for schools to provide extended learning time, because we believe that more learning time can help improve learning outcomes for students,” said Larisa Shambaugh, the district’s chief talent officer, in a statement. “We look forward to working with the NTU to continue to ensure that this portion of the contract is implemented in a way that allows for all of our students and educators to be successful.”

The union has long raised doubts about whether the extra time is actually improving school performance. But the latest outcry appeared to be prompted less by fundamental concerns about the model than about how it is being carried out.

According to the union, some school administrators have revised the “election to work agreements” that outline teachers’ responsibilities at extended-time schools without consulting the union. Teachers would likely welcome some of the revisions — such as fewer trainings during the summer or on Saturdays — but union officials said they must still sign off on any changes.

In addition, some principals ordered teachers to sign next school year’s agreements this week. The union said that is unfair because the district has not yet hosted its annual job fair, meaning teachers are being asked to commit to stay at their current schools without being able to explore other options first.

As evidence, the union supplied an email from the principal of McKinley Elementary School to her staff saying that teachers who did not sign the agreements by Friday “will be removed from the McKinley Roster” and that teachers who do sign “obviously can’t change your mind to transfer later on.”

Another email provided by the union showed that the staff at Luis Muñoz Marin School for Social Justice had been told to sign their agreements by this Monday. However, they were informed Tuesday that the agreement had been modified and were told to sign the revised agreements by the end of that day.

Marin is part of the Renew program, while McKinley is a Turnaround school. Neither principal responded to emails seeking comment.

In his message to Interim Superintendent Gregory — which was titled “Turnaround Schools Dead: End the EWA threats now!” — Abeigon said that multiple principals had sent similarly “coercive” emails to teachers in recent weeks. He said the changes to the agreements violated the teachers contract. And he called on Gregory to “discuss replacing” the extended-time model with an after-school program that would only target students who need extra support.

“Dozens of your dedicated employees are crying out for help and your leadership,” Abeigon wrote, “as their backs are up against a wall you have the power to take down.”

Superintendent search

Former principal Roger Leon chosen as Newark’s new superintendent

Former principal and veteran administrator Roger Leon has been chosen as Newark’s new schools chief — its first since the city regained control of its schools.

In a unanimous vote Tuesday night, the school board chose Leon — a Newark native backed by local elected officials — over two candidates with extensive experience in other large urban districts, but whose outsider status put them at a disadvantage. The son of Cuban immigrants, Leon takes the reins of a system whose population has become increasingly Hispanic: At 46 percent of the Newark Public Schools enrollment, Hispanic students now outnumber black students, who make up 44 percent of the enrollment.

In opting for Leon, the board also passed over A. Robert Gregory, another former Newark principal and the district’s interim superintendent, who rose through the ranks under the previous state-appointed superintendent, Christopher Cerf — which some critics saw as a blemish on his record. The board actually picked Leon as superintendent once before, in 2015. But the state education commissioner, who still controlled the district at that time, ignored the board’s choice and appointed Cerf.

The board’s decision to again tap Leon seemed to signal a definitive break from the era of sweeping, controversial changes enacted by outsiders — namely, Cerf and his predecessor, Cami Anderson. Instead, after the state ended its decades-long takeover of the district in February and put the board back in charge of the schools, the board’s choice for superintendent suggests that it will rely on local talent and ideas to guide New Jersey’s largest school system in the new era of local control.

“After 22 years of being under state control, this is a new day,” said School Board Chair Josephine Garcia after Tuesday’s vote. “We look forward to working with the new superintendent.”

Leon grew up in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, where he attended the Hawkins Street School. He graduated from Science Park High School, the highly competitive magnet school, where he returned as a substitute math teacher while still a student at Rutgers University. He later coached the school’s renowned debate team.

He went on to teach middle-school algebra, then became principal of Dr. William H. Horton School and later University High School of the Humanities. For the past decade, he has been an assistant superintendent in the district.

As deputy chief academic officer under former superintendent Clifford Janey, he helped oversee several major policy changes, including new graduation requirements and district-wide grading standards. During that process, he recruited hundreds of parents, experts, and community members to join advisory committees to help craft the new policies.

More recently, he has played less of a policymaking role, instead helping to organize district-wide initiatives like a book-giveaway program for students. He also often authors the proclamations that the district awards to distinguished students and educators.

At a forum on Friday where the four superintendent finalists introduced themselves to the public, Leon said the district needs “a clear direction” for the future. He said his vision includes an “advanced technological curriculum” in schools, a focus on social-emotional learning, teacher training, and public-private partnerships to bring additional resources into schools.

“I will inherently be a proficient and influential agent of change,” he said, “because anything short of that is unacceptable.”

Leon arrives in his new position with a strong base of support, which was evident after Tuesday’s vote, when the audience erupted into cheers. In addition to the many parents and educators he has crossed paths with during his 25 years working in the district, he is also said to have close ties with State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, an influential lawmaker based in the politically powerful North Ward.

While Leon served under both Anderson and Cerf, he was far enough removed from the decision-making to escape the wrath of critics who opposed their policies, which included closing some district schools and overseeing the expansion of the charter-school sector. On Tuesday, John Abeigon, the head of the Newark Teachers Union, which clashed bitterly with Anderson and Cerf, said he looked forward to working with Leon.

“Once the new superintendent is sworn in,” he said, “we can begin rebuilding some of the more positive aspects of our district that were destroyed under the corporate control of Cerf.”

While the board has now officially offered Leon the position, it must still negotiate the terms of his contract. He will then start his new role on July 1.

Leon was one of four finalists selected by a search committee after a national search. A state plan had called for the board to choose from just three finalists. But someone on the search committee was unhappy with the three who were chosen and asked the state commissioner to allow a fourth finalist — despite the objections of some other committee members.

While the audience at Tuesday’s board meeting loudly cheered the board’s final decision, many people still criticized the search process. The board kept the names of the finalists secret until shortly before Friday’s forum, where audience members were not permitted to ask the candidates questions.

Still, even critics of the process said they were eager to work with the superintendent.

“The board made their decision,” said Wilhelmina Holder, a longtime parent activist. “So now we’re going to have to respect that decision and work on behalf of the children.”

Superintendent search

On eve of historic vote in Newark, questions arise about superintendent selection process

PHOTO: Newark Press Information Office

When the Newark school board votes on a new superintendent Tuesday evening, as is expected, it will choose from four finalists — a notable departure from the state’s guidelines for the search, which called for a maximum of three finalists.

The change, the result of a behind-the-scenes dispute, is likely to raise questions about the integrity of the superintendent search process at a critical juncture, as the local school board takes control for the first time in over two decades.

The fourth finalist was added after a search committee had already agreed on its shortlist, and despite the objections of some committee members who wanted to stick with the initial three finalists, according to Kim Gaddy, a committee member and school board member, and Marques-Aquil Lewis, the former school board chair, who were both involved in the process.

The addition came at the insistence of other search committee members who were upset that a “strong” candidate had been left off the shortlist, according to Lewis. The additional name was added after the state education commissioner, who is overseeing the handover to local control, agreed to revise the state-authored playbook governing the transition.  

The identities of the four finalist candidates are public, but search committee members would not confirm which of the four was added to the list late.

The dispute over the superintendent selection process comes as the elected school board is choosing a schools chief for the first time since 1995, when the state seized control of the district. In February, the state provisionally returned control of the district to board, whose first major task is to choose a new superintendent.

Gaddy, the school board member who was on the seven-person search committee, said she did not even learn about the request for a fourth candidate until after it was sent. (Lewis, the board chairman who sent the request, disputes that.) Either way, Gaddy says the committee should have honored the process as it was written in the guidelines, which the district must adhere to in order to maintain control of its schools.

“When we finished with three members, that’s it. There should not have been any other discussion with the search committee,” said Gaddy, who declined to say who was the fourth finalist added to the list.

In order to fully return to local control, the district must follow a two-year state plan that spells out every detail of the transition. The plan stipulated that the board must conduct a national search for superintendent candidates, who would then be narrowed down to three finalists by the search committee.

During their deliberations, the committee members discussed the possibility of naming four finalists, but there was “no real consensus” on whether to ask for an additional finalist, according to Gaddy. So at its final meeting on April 21, the group decided to adhere to the plan and name three finalists.

However, immediately after that meeting, one or more members approached Lewis, who was then the chair of the school board, and asked him to send a request to the state asking for permission to name a fourth finalist, Lewis said. Lewis, who was not on the search committee, would not say who asked him to request the change. But he said they were unhappy with the shortlist of finalists.

“When the request was made, they felt there was a fourth candidate that was strong, that should have made the finals,” he said, adding that the person or persons did not tell him who the candidates were.

Lewis said he reached out to all seven committee members before making the request, but could not reach one member. (Lewis said he did speak with Gaddy, which she says she does not recall.)

Two members objected to the request, Lewis said. But he said that four agreed to it, so he sent a letter to the commissioner asking for a change to the transition plan.

Just after Lewis sent the request, he was replaced as board chair by Josephine Garcia. (Lewis did not run for re-election.) After becoming chair, Garcia re-sent the request to the state.

Once again, Gaddy said she was not informed in advance: “I found out after the fact. I was not asked to support it.” Instead, she said that Garcia said she would discuss the request at a board meeting — after it had already been sent. (Garcia did not respond to an email seeking comment.)

On April 27, Acting State Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet sent Garcia a letter saying her request had been granted.

“I am in receipt of your request to amend the Transition Plan to allow the Superintendent Search Committee to submit four finalists to the full Board of Education for consideration,” Lamont wrote in the letter, which the state education department provided to Chalkbeat.

“In order to provider greater assistance to the district in finding the best candidate for the Superintendent position and to allow for consideration of all potentially qualified candidates,” Lamont continued, he agreed to amend the transition plan to allow for four finalists.

After the request was granted, four finalists were presented to the school board — including the one who did not make the original list of three. The four introduced themselves to the public on Friday, and were interviewed by the board in private on Saturday. The full board is expected to vote on which finalist to extend the offer to at its meeting Tuesday evening.

The finalists are former Baltimore city schools chief Andres Alonso; Newark Interim Superintendent A. Robert Gregory; Newark Assistant Superintendent Roger Leon; and Sito Narcisse, chief of schools for Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee.

The search committee includes three board members: Gaddy, Garcia, and Leah Owens. Three other members were jointly chosen by the mayor and the state education commissioner: Former Newark superintendent Marion Bolden, Rutgers University-Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor, and Irene Cooper-Basch, executive officer of the Victoria Foundation. A seventh person, attorney Jennifer Carrillo-Perez, was appointed by the commissioner.

Only Gaddy would agree to speak on the record for this story; the other committee members did not respond to messages or declined to comment on the record.

Gaddy said she kept the names of the candidates confidential throughout the process, as required. However, she said she felt the entire process has been tainted by the decision to change the rules of the search without the agreement of the full search committee.

The transition plan “was a roadmap,” Gaddy said, that provided clear instructions: “‘You have two years to do A, B, C, and D.’”

“Now every time you don’t agree with A or you don’t agree with B, you’re going to write a letter to the commissioner?” she asked. “How is that following the plan and inspiring confidence in the ability to run this district?”