Change may be difficult, but One Newark plan is worthwhile: Opinion

By Star-Ledger Guest Columnist
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on January 27, 2015

Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson welcomes students as they arrive at Peshine Avenue Preparatory School, for the first day of school in September 2014 under the "One Newark" program.

 

By Cami Anderson

I recently had an opportunity to engage with state legislators on a range of topics affecting students in Newark. I sincerely appreciated a forum where decorum was upheld, questions could be answered, and tough, frank dialogue could occur. Our children’s lives depend on our ability to deliver radically better results than we have to date. That requires difficult conversations and a willingness to confront dysfunctional past practices.

Change is hard. Breaking down and rebuilding a failed bureaucracy requires tough decisions – ones about which reasonable people can disagree. I left the hearing asking myself how we can move forward together to find ways to ensure equity while building excellent public schools, and how we can deepen our connection with families in Newark and those that represent them.

Every high-performing school has a transformational school leader who is empowered to hire excellent teachers. They have 21st-century facilities, engaged families, and best-in- class tools and curricula.

Many of these high-performing schools are charters. And, in many regards, they are playing with a much more favorable hand than traditional public schools. They don’t have to choose between balancing their budget and “force placing” teachers because of seniority rules that are not driven by quality. They can retain teachers who are excellent and exit those who are not growing. They can use tax credits and bonds to efficiently renovate buildings and buy air conditioners. They can drive money into the classroom without the attacks that come when a district attempts the same objectives.

We can deny that charters have these advantages, or we can try to slow their growth, but that denies families’ access to high-quality schools now. The fact remains that many charters in Newark are outperforming traditional public schools. Instead of fighting against a charter system that is working for our kids, we must create a public policy agenda that gives traditional public schools the same pro-student advantages.

One Newark has always been about ensuring excellence and equity by aggressively improving traditional public schools, partnering with and learning from charters, advocating for conditions that allow the District to compete on a level playing field and tearing down policy and past-practice barriers.

Prior to One Newark’s universal enrollment process, the city had no central enrollment system. Families navigated each school’s individual process – resulting in mixed messages or different rules depending on how “desirable” the school found the student. At the most sought-after schools, families literally camped out on sidewalks or waited to see if they won a rare seat through an individualized charter lottery. Persistent families reached out to local officials or entered into multiple charter lotteries to get what they wanted.

The result was an unfair system where a disproportionate percentage of students with disabilities, and students living below the poverty line, were shut out of the highest- performing schools. Families who had the time and the ability to navigate a relationship- driven process had more options.

While we are proud that 74 percent of families who participated in One Newark’s universal enrollment process received a school match within their top five choices, it is true that not every family got what they wanted. The challenge then – and now – is that family demand far exceeds supply. At least now, all families have an equal chance of accessing coveted seats. Now we must work toward a long-term solution that improves the quality of all schools in Newark and increases the number of high-quality seats – that’s our goal.

One Newark is so much more – and so much bigger - than an enrollment algorithm. It is a common accountability framework that measures all schools by the same yardstick, and focuses on the growth and retention of struggling learners. It is a master plan to ensure equity and excellence in education for all of Newark’s students.

All families, in all neighborhoods, should have access to great schools, and it will require change. I continue to hope we can meet the challenges together. Our kids are depending on it.

Cami Anderson is superintendent of Newark schools.

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