As students head back to class, Cerf says Newark schools ready to 'turn the page

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for
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on September 03, 2015

Newark Superintendent of Schools Christopher Cerf, right, addresses the media outside Barringer High School on Thursday. To his left are district Director of Operations Keith Barton, Chief Talent Officer Vanessa Rodriguez, Assistant Superintendent Brag Haggerty, Business Administrator Valerie Wilson and Newark Municipal Council President Mildred Crump.
NEWARK – Striking a triumphant tone, Superintendent of Schools Christopher Cerf and other district leaders on Thursday declared the first school day of the year a success.

The remarks came at Barringer High School, which became something of a ground zero for the issues facing the school system last fall after a student video raised concerns about teacher vacancies, overcrowding and even a lack of sufficient desks in many classrooms.

"At this time last year, Barringer needed some help," Cerf said. "We need to acknowledge both our strengths and our problems, and we had some problems here in the past."

On Thursday, however, officials said that teacher vacancies at the school had been reduced to just one – thanks in part to a decision to return hundreds of teachers without assignment to regular duty - and that employees had systematically ensured that classrooms were cleaned and sufficiently equipped for the returning students.

School Business Administrator Valerie Wilson said that the work at Barringer, one of the city's oldest schools, was small in comparison to that done district-wide. She touted more than 800 projects in all, including roof and brick replacements at Arts High School, Abington Avenue Elementary School and Ann Street Elementary School.

"We have led a very successful process this year," she said.

Cerf also said the district had gone to great lengths to mitigate issues that dominated conversation on the first day of school last year, when parents and students alike reported confusion about assignments, busing and other changes due to the newly introduced "One Newark" school reorganization plan.

In addition to adjustments at the district's "Family Support Center", officials said they bussed children to school from a network of 8 transportation hubs and assigned additional staff to help parents and children navigate their way to the right school and classroom.

Municipal Council President Mildred Crump, however, said constituents still reported being less than totally satisfied with the new system.

"As far as I'm concerned, the jury is still out," she said. "I still receive a number of calls from parents saying, you know, 'help'."

In spite of any ongoing issues, however, she said she there were plenty of reasons to believe Cerf, who took over as superintendent in early July despite the objections of many city and school officials, might be able to win over more Newarkers than his predecessor, Cami Anderson.

"I haven't been the best friend to him, but he's doing some new kinds of things," she said. "The previous superintendent, as we well know, disengaged herself from the public meetings at the Board of Education, and refused to come to some of the meetings requested by the council. At least Superintendent Cerf is not afraid to come before us, so that's a plus."

Cerf, who led a tour of Barringer after taking a handful of questions from reporters, said he hoped others would see the changes he felt were taking hold across the city.

"I realize that we are turning the page. We are looking forward into a bright future,' he said.

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