Newark school chief: Community is 'very warm, very open'

By Adam Clark | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on August 05, 2015

Newark Public Schools Superintendent Chris Cerf, seen in this file photo, says he is open to hearing what is going right or going wrong in the district. 

 

NEWARK — The last superintendent of Newark Public Schools experienced what Gov. Chris Christie described as "full-scale combat" with some members of the district and city community.

But the new state-appointed city schools chief told the State Board of Education on Wednesday that he's received a different reception so far, even though some community leaders had opposed his appointment. 

"The community has been in general very warm, very open, very responsive to sort of turning the page and sort of moving forward into a bright future for the school system in Newark," said Chris Cerf, who replaced former superintendent Cami Anderson on July 8.

Cerf, the state education commissioner from 2011-2014, made his first appearance before the state board on Wednesday as Newark's superintendent. Monthly appearances at the meetings in Trenton are one of several conditions attached to his approval last month.

In a roughly seven minutes presentation, Cerf told state board members that he's met with more than 50 Newark community members or elected officials, including parents, clergy and philanthropic partners. 

He's also had been conferencing with senior district leadership, he said. 

"There is a really tremendously legitimate hunger for begin listened to, for being heard, being engaged, and I am very committed to that process," Cerf said. "I understand that there is a difference between listening and agreeing, but I know that I am very open and very flexible to hearing not only things that are working but things that aren't." 

Anderson, Cerf's predecessor, grew increasingly unpopular among some elected official and Newark activists as she enacted her One Newark reform plan in the city schools. About 100 people protested prior to Cerf's approval, and Newark's school advisory board recommended its own candidate, Assistant Superintendent Roger Leon.

In a half hour question and answer session with the state board, Cerf said gaining the trust of the community is one of his two biggest challenges. The other, he said, is managing the district's fiscal problems. 

When asked what would mark a successful first year, Cerf said he wants to bridge the gap between two narratives about the district. 

"There a lot of folks who have embraced the sort of narrative of failure and discord," Cerf said. "And there are a lot of folks who have embraced a narrative of success and progress."

The district needs to have an open dialogue about the underlying facts and figure out whether those narratives are based on anecdotes or broad trends, he said.

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