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The ugly reform mess in Newark public schools — by a top Newark education official

Cami Anderson, superintendent of Newark Public Schools (Photo by Chris Goodney/Bloomberg)

The public school system in Newark, N.J., is not run by the people of Newark but, rather, by a superintendent appointed by Gov. Chris Christie (R). That superintendent, Cami Anderson, who was appointed in 2011, has turned many in the city — including former allies — against her as she has implemented a highly controversial reform plan, called “One Newark.” According to this story by my Post colleague Lyndsey Layton, this is how the reforms were implemented:

The plan, which fully took effect during this academic year, essentially blew up the old system. It eliminated neighborhood schools in favor of a citywide lottery designed to give parents more choices. It prompted mass firings of principals and teachers, and it led to numerous school closures and a sharp rise in the city’s reliance on charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run.

“One Newark” has led to seven separate complaints of civil rights violations now under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education, Layton reported. In April 2014, dozens of clergy in Newark warned Christie that school reform was causing so much “unnecessary instability” that they were “concerned about the level of public anger” over the issue. Weeks later, Newark voters elected a new mayor, Ras Baraka, whose campaign was focused on attacking Anderson’s reforms, and who continues to call for Anderson’s resignation. To date, Christie has maintained his support for Anderson.

Just last week, Baraka issued his latest letter to the Newark community in which he blasts Anderson’s reforms, saying in part (note that the bold-face type and underlining is in the original letter.] :

The facts can no longer be ignored. Our schools are being failed.  They are not failing; they are being failed. Our schools have been attacked by a narrow reform agenda that amounts to nothing more than chaos, graft, and mis-education.

The following post details what is going on in the Newark district, which was so low-performing that the state took over in control in 1995 but failed to either do much to improve things or return control back to the city. This was written by Lauren Wells, who was appointed in 2014 as the Chief Education Officer in Baraka’s administration. An educator and school change agent, she was, from 2006-2009,  the project coordinator of a statewide education policy coalition called the New Jersey Education Organizing Coalition.  In 2009, Dr. Wells became the director of the Broader Bolder Approach to Education at the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University, where she  led the design and implementation of a major school reform initiative in Newark called the Newark Global Village School Zone.

By Lauren Wells

In the span of one week in May, two major education protests took place in Newark, one by teachers and another by students.

In the largest, thousands of students walked out of every Newark high school, converging on the steps of City Hall and eventually taking over an intersection blocking access to the New Jersey Turnpike and other major highways. These protests, which have escalated over the last two years, are directed at the state’s refusal to return local control to the Newark Public Schools as well as the strategies being used by the state-appointed superintendent to dismantle the traditional Newark Public School District.

As the Chief Education Officer to the mayor of New Jersey’s largest city, I interact daily with parents, educators, and students who want more than the broken promises and failed educational strategies of the state.

Several weeks ago, a Newark parent came to my office seeking help. Last year, her son, who was an eighth grader at a district K-8 school, was required to participate in One Newark Universal Enrollment (One Newark), the controversial enrollment plan introduced last year. After selecting eight schools, he was assigned to a charter school, Apple Academy. This year, he has been suspended from Apple Academy for at least one day of every month since school began in September, and was recently expelled.

This boy is a special education student with an individualized education plan (IEP) requiring specific services. His recent IEP states:

“student is unable to thrive in current setting due to Apple Academy not having the placement recommendation from the prior school. While Apple Academy has made effort, most of the supports that the student requires are not attainable in the student’s current setting.”

His mother sincerely believed that Apple Academy was a choice that would provide her son with the best education possible. However, One Newark placed him in a school unable to support him causing Mark to lose valuable learning time and violating his rights.

Thousands of students are like him, losing ground because of failed reform strategies, including one called “Renew Schools,” in which Anderson selected eight schools targeted for “renewal” by  firing the principals and half the staff and replacing them, in many cases with young educators from outside Newark who had ties to Teach for America and other similar reform organizations, Layton reported.

Reports issued by the Alliance for Newark Public Schools show that after two years, “Renew Schools pass rates are lower than they were prior to becoming Renew schools” in 13 out of 16 areas. Renew Schools also missed all 56 targets set by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) waiver obtained from the Obama administration in 2012. Yet the state continues to deny these schools and other “priority” and “focus” schools in Newark support from Regional Assistance Centers, which the federal NCLB waiver requires.

These reforms have caused other problems all across the district.  Since 2011, there has been 60 percent turnover of principals across the district. Some schools, including Weequahic, Barringer, and West Side High Schools and 13th Avenue Elementary School, have had multiple principals.

All of the alternative education programs that existed in 2012 to reconnect 3,800 youth who have left school to academic programs have been eliminated. Two-hundred and seventy-one employees without placement cost the district over $22 million dollars while the district’s deficit is ballooning.

All of this shows that state control of Newark’s schools is out of control. State control, intended to improve educational outcomes for children in districts in need of external support, has become an instrument of the disenfranchisement of many black and Latino citizens in New Jersey.

The citizens of Newark want high standards, multiple assessments, transparency, and collaboration. They want to send their children to neighborhoods schools that leverage the resources of their city and gifts of their communities. They want to exercise their right to choose these things. Our students deserve schools, interventions, and reform supported by consistent and validated research and not reckless experimentation.

One way to give them what they deserve is through “community schools,” which focus on academics, health and social services, social emotional development, and community development to simultaneously increase achievement and strengthen families and communities. Community schools are working in places such as New York, Cincinnati, and even our neighboring state-operated district, Paterson.

The citizens of Newark are entitled to quality schools and full participation in the democratic process governing their schools. This is the real promise of the civil rights movement.  The district needs a new and immediate course, a course that ends state control and ushers in era of evidence-based school reform that accelerates learning for all students.