After 21 years, local control poised to return to Newark schools next fall

By Jessica Mazzola | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Email the author | Follow on Twitter
on August 22, 2016

Newark school statistics cited by the NESB.

---

 

NEWARK — Complete local control of the Newark schools should be fully restored by the 2017-18 school year, according to a report released Monday afternoon by the Newark Education Success Board -- the 9-member panel co-created by Gov. Chris Christie and Mayor Ras Baraka last year to help guide the transition back to local control.

The group's 45-page report, "Pathway to Local Control," includes an assessment of the district's current operations, and hundreds of recommendations for continued reform efforts it should implement in the lead up to, and immediately after, the state hands over the reigns to the locally-elected school advisory board and its to-be-determined choice for a superintendent.

In the lead up to the 20th anniversary of the state's takeover of the Newark public school system, the atmosphere in the city was tense. Students, parents, and civic leaders regularly protested school leadership. Baraka often called for then-Superintendent Cami Anderson's resignation, and when asked why he was reappointing her to the top position in the state-controlled district, Christie said, "I don't care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark, not them."

Just about a year later, all of that has changed. Now, an end is in sight, and everyone is agreeing on it.

So long as the state's 2017 Q-SAC review of the district is favorable, and "the state evaluates that adequate programs, policies, and personnel are in place," local control should be restored according to the timeline outline in the document, the report states.

"This report is another giant step toward the day when the people of Newark regain control of our schools," Baraka said in a statement about the release of the report, which officials marked at a press conference Monday afternoon.

"During the coming months, my office, (Newark Public Schools) and the Board of Education will work together to plan the transition with input from the people of Newark, our students, parents, teachers, colleges and universities, business community and philanthropies.

THE ANALYSIS

The state takeover of the 35,000-student district can be categorized into five organizational components. Newark Public Schools has already regained control of three of them – operations in 2007, fiscal management in 2014, and earlier this year, personnel. The two remaining areas under state control are governance, and instruction and programming.

As part of its report, the NESB provided a brief breakdown of current school statistics, pointing out areas that have improved over the years, and things that still need work. Despite student performance statistics below state averages, the group focused on in-district performance growth in making the recommendation.

Key findings of the analysis include:

  • Student proficiency rates on the new PARCC exam are low, only 22 percent of Newark students are proficient in English, and 17.5 percent in math. But, the statistics show Newark students are actually ahead of most comparable districts in both areas. And, Newark student test scores over the past year are up, the report said.
  • Though some educational rates are still low, they are improving. The district-wide graduation rate improved from 56 percent in 2011 to 70 percent in 2014, and the pass rate for the High School Proficiency Assessment is up from 31 to 43.3 percent in the same period of time.
  • Chronic absenteeism among students is "far too high," the report says – about 22 percent of students at K-8 schools and 49 percent of kids in high school were absent more than 18 days during the 2014-15 school year.
  • Student suspensions and incidents of vandalism and violence were down over the past three school years, though many students still say they feel unsafe at school.
  • The report recognizes a persistent problem in the district not being able to fill the demand for high quality educators, particularly math, science, and bilingual teachers. However, it did commend the school's merit-based incentive program for teachers, and noted that about 95 percent of teachers who were rated "effective" or "highly effective" during their performance reviews last year stayed in the district this year.
  • The district anticipates having a balanced budget for the 2016-17 school year (district officials have overcome about $150 million in budget gaps the past two school years). But, there is currently an anticipated $70 million budget shortfall for the 2017-18 school year.

CHANGING THE CULTURE

The majority of the group's recommendations – which it prioritizes into those that need to be carried out immediately, and those that need to happen within the first 18 months after local control has been restored – were aimed at creating a new culture of collaboration and progress within the entire school community.

District goals, it said, should include "increasing the morale, spirit, and pride in Newark's Public Schools," for students, staff, parents, and residents, and "challenge historical conditions of low expectations, assigning blame, absence of stakeholder trust in the school system, and lack of belief in the ability of the schools to ensure the academic and social success of every child."

"All students should be supported, encouraged, and instructed to achieve rigorous outcomes," the document reads.

The NESB made hundreds of recommendations in five main areas:

Governance: The recommendations here included having the board design a proper process to find a new superintendent (current state-appointed Superintendent Chris Cerf's term would end when state control does); clearly develop bylaws and guidelines that will inform the board of education's actions, as well as the superintendent's; and ensure that the board shows "appropriate levels of decorum at all public meetings," which have often been rowdy and contentious in the past. Cerf is a member of the NESB, and contributed to the report's creation."This report, along with recent QSAC scores and the district's strategic plan, show how much progress has been made and lay out a clear path forward," Cerf said in a statement. "We look forward to continuing to work together to move in the right direction."

Curriculum, Instruction, and Programming: The list here included a complete transformation of the district's central office; enacting policies that "celebrate teaching as a profession, not only a 'job;'" and creating and adhering to rigorous curriculum expectations that challenge all students and teachers to develop 21st Century skills. The report also demands the district remain committed to properly educating all student learning styles, including the 10 percent of students in the school system who are English language learning, and the 17 percent who are in the special education program.

Talent Development: This section outlined several strategies for attracting and retaining quality educators, like developing partnerships with college teacher prep programs, creating a "grow our own" strategy to encourage Newark students to become educators who return to the district; and focusing on hiring more African American and Latino male teachers. Though it didn't mention specific numbers, the group also recommended that the board enact compensation structures that attract and keep teachers.

Family and Community Engagement: As a major component of changing the district's culture and reputation, the group recommended several initiatives around more actively engaging parents and the greater community in the school system, and being more transparent with board happenings. It also noted that although the district is already using social media to communicate its messages, parents feel that it does not use those platforms enough.

Finance: The NESB held that it will be the responsibility of both the district and the state to ensure that Newark has enough funding to operate at a higher level. It recommended the creation of an advisory transition team to facilitate the transition to local control and a full financial audit once it is returned. Many of the group's recommendations were geared at creating accurate budgets and sustaining continued management of funds.

CHARTER AND COMMUNITY SCHOOLS

The recommendations also address one of the issues that has fiercely divided the community – the struggle between traditional public and charter schools. According to the report, about 14,000 of Newark's students are enrolled in its 20 charter schools. Charter enrollment in the city has tripled over the past five years, and about 42 percent of Newark families chose a charter school as the first choice school for their children.

The document includes a slew of recommendations that it says are aimed at increasing the communication and collaboration between traditional and charter schools. "Core to achieving this vision is the ability of these sectors to acknowledge a shared responsibility to ensure equitable access to high quality education in Newark, and develop a shared commitment to work together in a productive manner to address barriers to equity," it says.

The NESB also commended the ongoing development of "community schools" in the city's South Ward, a $12 million collaboration between the school district and city that is designed to provide additional resources to some of Newark's neediest schools. The group called the plan "a powerful approach to well-rounded student support and engagement."

The document also outlines a plan for new school leadership, including a city-wide election to determine whether the district will be Type I – in which the mayor would appoint new school board members – or Type II – in which board members are voted on by residents. The district is currently Type II, holding annual elections each April to elect new board members.

The president of the current nine-member school advisory board, which has actively fought for local control throughout much of the state's 21-year rule, issued a statement in support of the report.

"On behalf of the (nine) members of the Newark Board of Education, I congratulate the Newark Education Success Board on the hard work that culminated in a document that will guide the school board, the District, the City, and all stakeholders who are interested in a return to full local control and successful self-governance," Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson said.

"At the core of the NESB report is the shared value of building a community focused school district that will utilize best practices to successfully educate its children now and into the future."

 

Do you like this post?

Be the first to comment