In the new edition of EducationNext, Richard Lee Colvin drills down on the last few tumultuous years in Newark, New Jersey’s largest and most politically-contentious district. The state took over the district 20 years ago “after documenting years of academic failure, unsafe buildings, corruption, and lavish spending by elected school board members.” But despite current allocations of $25,000 per student per year, the district failed to improve academic achievement of city schoolchildren, who are almost all Black, Hispanic, and economically-disadvantaged.
Colvin focuses on the leadership of Chris Cerf, who replaced the unpopular Cami Anderson (whom Cerf defends) in July 2015. Upon his appointment by Gov. Chris Christie, Cerf faced the ire of many parents and teachers who “felt ignored and disrespected.” To get a sense of the hostility, Colvin reminds us that “when [Cerf] was officially confirmed by the New Jersey Board of Education, John Abeigon, the president of the Newark Teachers Union, was thrown out for disrupting the meeting.”
Yet in one short year, Cerf has managed to quell critics, establish a good working relationship with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, calm the charter school wars (25 percent of Newark schoolchildren currently attend these alternative public schools), and change “a narrative of failure” to one approaching hope. The student suspension rate is down 37 percent, graduation rates are up to 70 percent (from 61 percent in 2011), and, writes Colvin, “about one in three Newark students attends ‘beating the odds’ schools, those that outperform schools with similar demographics in their state in reading and math, according to a 2015 study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education.”
Even opposition from the city’s militant teachers union has died down. Currently Newark retains 95 percent of teachers evaluated as “effective.”
Perhaps a silver lining of Anderson’s political struggles is that Cerf came in fully knowing he needed a different approach. Even in his first appearance before an advisory board last August, Cerf was on message:
I pledge to you a dialogue based on civility and respect and availability and facts and information…
Our children are watching how we conduct ourselves. We are providing a model for how civil civic discourse takes place, and how we do that even when we disagree is so critically important.