It’s easy to be skeptical about improvements to Newark Public Schools (NPS), given its sordid history of corruption, desultory oversight, and—most critically—poor student outcomes. But it just may be time to lighten up: after the incorporation of higher academic and operational standards, greater accountability and transparency, and Superintendent Chris Cerf’s leadership, New Jersey’s largest school district is finally able to point to meaningful measures of progress.
To wit: a substantial increase in high school graduates, bolstered by a new emphasis on college attendance.
This cultural shift isn’t new for all Newark public schools—local charters have incorporated this emphasis into their model for some time—but it’s new for the traditional district. And, lo and behold, it’s working.
According to a district press release and a Star-Ledger report, Newark Public Schools is celebrating record numbers—75 percent—of high school graduates enrolling in 135 two- and four-year colleges. And not just any schools: seven NPS graduates will be attending Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania on full scholarships.
All told, the class of 2017 received $15.7 million in college scholarships, largely due to a redirection of resources to a district-wide system that tracks and supports students’ post-graduation plans. Deputy Superintendent Robert Gregory said that this year’s graduating class can “act as a baseline” to which future classes will be compared.
High school graduation rates are also up. Back in 2011 only 55 percent of NPS students received diplomas. (Gov. Christie claimed it was 29 percent, but he was only counting students who passed New Jersey’s old high school qualification test, the HSPA, which is unaligned with new college and career-ready benchmarks; students, then and now, can get diplomas through alternative routes.) Last year the district graduation rate was up to 73.5 percent and administrators are confident it will increase to 80 percent through new programs that track student progress and offer credit recovery options.
In the end, of course, students have the final say. So let’s give it to them.
‘I don’t believe in excuses, which is why I take advantage of opportunities afforded to me,’ said Lucia Couto, valedictorian of Arts High School. ‘Don’t let people’s opinions about where you come from make you think in a certain way. I love Newark and I am proud to say I live here. A lot of good things and people come from Newark.’ Lucia will be attending Harvard University in the fall on a full-tuition scholarship and intends to major in medical physics.
‘I am extremely happy to receive my scholarship,’ added Michael Lawrence a West Side High School graduate whose entire tuition at NJIT will be covered by scholarships. ‘I want to thank my support system of friends, family, and teachers who pushed me to be someone who is passionate for success. I hope this is the first step to honor the legacy of the love and support of those who are especially close to me.’