Newark schools, feds strike deal to halt probe into civil rights complaints

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on December 16, 2015

Newark Superintendent of Schools Chris Cerf, shown here in a file photo. The state-controlled district has reached an agreement with the federal Department of Education that will halt a probe into allegations of civil rights violations surrounding the controversial "One Newark" reorganization plan.

 

NEWARK — The city's public school district has reached an agreement that will halt a federal investigation into whether the controversial "One Newark" reorganization plan unfairly harms minority students and their families.

The agreement signed Nov. 9 will require the state-controlled district to take a number of steps to address the alleged discrimination in the suit, including handing over an assessment of the academic performance of students whose schools were either closed, moved or transitioned into charter schools as part of the plan.

Officials will also need to submit data on transportation services provided to those students, the capacity and facilities of the schools where they were transferred, and whether students with disabilities or special needs were provided with appropriate services at their new schools.

Through the reporting, officials will need to identify any students harmed by the reorganization, and take steps to remedy the adverse effects. No monetary penalties were included in the deal.

District spokeswoman Dreena Whitfield said officials had no comment on the agreement.

In a letter to Superintendent of School Christopher Cerf dated Dec. 9, U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights Director Timothy Blanchard said a preliminary investigation into a number of schools closed at the end of 2011-12 academic year found that a "significantly disproportionate" number of black students were affected compared to their white peers.

Former superintendent Cami Anderson, who oversaw the closures, told federal investigators that the closures were not based on race or location, but were chosen because each had deteriorating facilities, low enrollment compared to building capacity and less than a third of students reading at grade level, according to the letter.

Since 2009, Newark has closed 13 schools — largely in the poor and heavily African-American South and West wards - several of which have since been turned over to charter management organizations.

Many of the displaced students have been transferred to eight so-called "Renew Schools", where the district concentrated efforts to turn around previously failing facilities by hiring high-performing teachers and extending learning hours. According to Blanchard, however, investigators found the efforts had made little impact in the year following their implementation in September 2012.

"OCR's preliminary review of data indicated that the NPS's closing of schools and transitioning of students did not appear to afford the affected students any measurable, improved educational outcomes," his letter reads.

Newark parents and national civil rights advocacy groups filed the trio of complaints that prompted the investigation between 2012 and 2014. Among their allegations was that black students made up 51 percent of the district, but comprised 86 percent of those affected by school closures.

Federal authorities revealed the probe in July 2014, as public ire over "One Newark" and other Anderson-backed reforms reached a fever pitch.

After repeated protests and calls for her resignation by city officials, Anderson left her post in late June. She has since given way to Cerf, a former state education commissioner who appears to have forged a truce with Mayor Ras Baraka and other critics of state control over the district.

Tawanda Sheard, a parent who joined a complaint filed by advocacy group Newark PULSE, said Tuesday that school closures had had a "devastating impact on our children, families, and community", but was relieved to hear the district was addressing her concerns.

"I am excited about the agreement and hope it helps not just my daughter, but students across Newark," she said.

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