Baraka, Cerf announce $12.5M plan to rescue needy Newark schools

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on December 01, 2015

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, shown here in a file photo, has teamed with Superintendent Chris Cerf and the Foundation for Newark's Future to create an initiative aimed at bringing a variety of new supports for students at struggling public schools in the city's South Ward.

 

NEWARK – A coalition of city officials gathered at City Hall Tuesday to announce a new initiative they hope might blaze a path toward erasing the glaring and often controversial disparities across Newark's school system.

Mayor Ras Baraka and Superintendent Chris Cerf were among those on hand to detail early plans for the "South Ward Community Schools Initiative", which would provide a variety of supports to students in the some of the city's neediest schools.

The initiative has received a tentative commitment of $12.5 million from the Foundation for Newark's Future – the organization created to manage the $100 million Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated to the city in 2010 to reform the city's floundering school system.

Those reforms have been widely criticized for what many considered a narrow focus on classroom-based efforts rather than the city's social ills, and for fostering the growth of charter schools that have stretched budgets for their traditional counterparts thin.

Those points were not lost on Baraka, who praised the new program's comprehensive support network that spans far beyond the academic, including social workers, physical and mental health workers and staff to supply healthy food.

"As people parachute in, pass out money and have us at each other's throats, our children every day are still stuck, for the most part," said Baraka.

The nuts and bolts of the program are still being ironed out, though officials said they plan to launch the program at Malcolm X Shabazz High School and three yet to be determined "feeder" schools in the immediate area by next fall.

FNF has pledged a total of $1.2 million to help plan the initiative and the Newark Opportunity Youth Network – a separate program aimed at steering dropouts and other disconnected youth toward obtaining a diploma. If all goes as expected, the organization has pledged another $10 million to community schools and $2.5 million to NOYN.

If successful, officials said they hope to replicate the program in other schools around the city, though funding could present a major issue in a district still wrangling with a significant budget deficit.

"As we expand and invest in this initiative, we will make sure that we not in any way short change any of the other schools in the district," said Cerf.

The initiative also creates partnerships between Baraka, the state-controlled school district and FNF – an alliance that might have seemed inconceivable just months ago, when the mayor regularly called for the resignation of reform-minded superintendent Cami Anderson.

Plans for the community schools initiative incorporate much of the comprehensive, holistic solutions that critics like Baraka had pushed for, while also allowing school administrators additional latitude over budgets and curriculum and the ability to hand-pick staff members.

South Ward Councilman John Sharpe James said the move appeared to be a stark reversal for the state-controlled district that many had come to regard as an occupying force with little regard for the concerns of Newarkers.

"In 20 years, this is the first time we've seen that the state has taken an active interest in....what the community needs, what the community wants," said South Ward Councilman John Sharpe James.

The city's teachers and school administrators' unions had leaders in attendance at the press conference Tuesday, each of whom expressed tentative support for the plan.

Officials said the new program was borne out of a mutual recognition that community schools were in need of additional help amid years of flat funding from the state and a rapidly expanding network of charter schools in the city.

With control of the district now set to return to the city for the first time in more than two decades, Baraka said it was crucial to ensure students in traditional public school were properly equipped to succeed.

"When we get local control, we want to get a hold of something. We don't want to get local control and we have nothing," he said.

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