Fifteen years ago, the state took over Newark Public Schools with the goal of transforming the district and ushering in a new era of educational excellence. A generation later, we have yet to achieve that goal and the only way to drive real, lasting change is by working together.
I applaud the schools that are succeeding and gratefully recognize those many dedicated educators who are giving their all every day to help Newark’s students achieve. They are heroes. Yet I know of no one in any corner of this conversation who doesn’t acknowledge that the system as a whole is failing far too many children.
Less than half of the district’s children can pass eighth-grade state assessments and, four years later, only 22 percent pass the High School Proficiency Assessments, graduate high school and receive their diploma.
These aren’t just numbers. They are tragically predictive of the life outcome of children — from lifetime earnings and unemployment to health and the likelihood of a negative contact with the judicial system. We must and we will do better for the city’s children.
The Christie administration’s vision for improving Newark Public Schools is simple: We want to expand the bright spots of excellence by ensuring that every classroom and school has effective teachers and principals, creating and enhancing high-quality school options, empowering parents with a greater say in their children’s education and holding schools accountable for success.
There are local schools, such as Fourteenth Avenue and Newton Street, proving Newark schools can serve the genius of every child. Their practices are worth understanding and replicating. Achieving this vision will require hard work, a steadfast commitment to make every decision based exclusively on what is best for children and a clear-eyed view that real, transformative change inevitably draws some controversy.
The hard work has already begun.
First, Rochelle Hendricks, who recently served as acting commissioner of the state Department of Education, has assumed responsibility for the district pending the appointment of a new superintendent. Interim Superintendent Deborah Terrell, with other Newark Public Schools senior leadership, is working closely with Hendricks to develop solutions to the district’s most immediate challenges: specifically the budget gap and the shortage of high-quality school options.
We are engaging a cross-section of community members and community leaders to help find the next superintendent. While Mayor Cory Booker is not in the statutory “chain of command” led by the governor, he actively supports the governor’s and the district’s efforts to transform Newark’s schools.
On the budget, the transition team is looking at every scenario possible to minimize the impact on the classroom. One of those scenarios, as previously reported, is consolidation of under-enrolled and underperforming schools. Consolidating these schools would save the district millions of dollars in facility operations costs, and that would ultimately save the jobs of teachers and prevent a rise in class size.
Newark Public Schools is also looking to roll out new school options for parents. The district has already announced five new open enrollment high schools to offer families another alternative to the city’s comprehensive high schools, several of which are very low performing. Newark Public Schools also is exploring options to place high-performing charter schools, such as TEAM and North Star, in district facilities to create more high-quality seats for families.
No decisions have been made yet regarding the budget, consolidations or school placements, and the Newark School Advisory Board will be weighing in on each soon.
Second, it means getting the Newark community involved and invested in the process of reform.
The interim leadership team and I have been making a concerted effort to be available in public discussions, meet with the city leaders and, most importantly, to involve the School Advisory Board and receive its counsel on every major issue. We are redoubling our efforts to engage the board in the process of reform.
The challenges facing Newark are many, but we have an extraordinarily promising opportunity today to bring about significant positive change for the city’s children. Let’s work together to ensure that every one of Newark’s students receives a high-quality education.
Chris Cerf is the acting commissioner of the state Department of Education.