Highlights from a momentous year for Newark schools — and a preview of what’s ahead

A re-empowered school board, an ambitious new superintendent, a growing charter sector, a looming absenteeism crisis.

Phew. It’s been a big year for education in Newark.

In our first nine months covering Newark schools, Chalkbeat has documented the major changes and enduring challenges shaping New Jersey’s largest school system. Below, revisit highlights from the year that was — and get a sneak peek of the year ahead.

The school board regains the keys to the district

On July 12, 1995, a 20-member squad of state officials stormed into the Newark Board of Education headquarters and told the district’s top officials to pack up. After a judge found “failure on a very large scale” in the schools and “nepotism, cronyism and the like” among the board, the state was taking over.

  • Fast forward to 2010, when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced a $100 million grant to Newark (soon matched by $100 million from other outside donors) to bankroll a district-wide overhaul. It was led by Cami Anderson, a lightning-rod superintendent appointed by the state.
  • The controversial changes included school closures, a revamped teachers contract, a new school-enrollment system, and the rapid growth of the city’s charter-school sector. They eventually led to some academic gains, but also incited a political uprising that forced Anderson out. She was replaced by Christopher Cerf, a milder leader who nonetheless shared her agenda.
  • On Feb. 1, 2018, citing those gains and board reforms, the state ended its decades-long takeover of Newark’s schools. The city’s elected school board regained provisional control of the 36,000-student district and its roughly $1 billion. It was a hard-won victory for local activists and politicians, including Mayor Ras Baraka, who rode into office largely by opposing Anderson’s agenda.
  • Just weeks after the return to local control, the board held its annual elections. The three winning candidates were backed by a powerful coalition comprised of Baraka, a North Ward councilman, and the charter-school sector. With that election, the coalition helped seat all nine of the board’s current members.
  • In November, Newark voters overwhelmingly opted to keep the board elected rather than appointed by the mayor. However, only a fraction of voters actually participated in the referendum.
  • What’s next: The board must abide by the rules of a 73-page transition plan in order to regain complete control of the district in 2020. A new state “accountability office” is expected to issue a preliminary report on the district’s progress early next year.

After a secretive search, a new schools chief is chosen

Newark Superintendent Roger León

Earlier this year, the newly empowered school board made what could be its most consequential decision — the choice of a new superintendent.

  • Candidates were selected through a nationwide search, as stipulated by the state-crafted transition plan. But the search committee deviated from the plan by adding a fourth candidate after three finalists were already chosen.
  • State Sen. Teresa Ruiz reportedly backed the move to add an additional candidate. A Newark power broker, Ruiz is a longtime ally of Roger León — a Newark educator who emerged as one of the four finalists.
  • The school board was nearly split between León and another Newark native, former interim-Superintendent Robert Gregory.
  • But on May 22, the board agreed to unanimously back León, who rose through the Newark Public Schools ranks from star student to teacher, principal, top official, and finally, its first-ever Hispanic superintendent. His selection was seen by many as a rebuke to the era of outsider-led school reform.
  • What’s next: Picking a superintendent was just step one. Now the board must approve his desired policy changes and, by July 1, rate his performance.

Superintendent León gets to work

Roger León — a consummate Newarker well-known by school parents and politicians alike — faces sky-high expectations as the city’s first locally chosen schools chief in a generation. As one activist put it, “They expect him to be superman.”

The district’s absenteeism crisis shows no signs of abating

Newark students arriving at school on the first day of class.

Newark has long suffered from one of the worst student absenteeism rates in the state. Despite León’s promise to get every student to school, the problem has not gone away.

  • In August, León summoned the district’s entire workforce — all 7,000 or so employees — to a downtown sports arena. There he announced several whopping goals, including a district-wide attendance rate of 100 percent.
  • That is an exceedingly tall order — and according to some experts, impossible — in a district where one in three students was considered “chronically absent” after missing 10 percent or more days of the 2017-18 school year.
  • In September, he launched a back-to-school campaign complete with calls to every student’s home and specially made buttons. It appears to have helped: 91 percent of students showed up the first day — the highest rate since 2013, when former-Superintendent Anderson kicked off her own attendance campaign.
  • But in December, León released data from the first three months of school that underscored a fact well-known to researchers: Solid daily attendance rates can mask persistent absenteeism problems. The data showed that more than 20 percent of students are already chronically absent this year — with about 3,200 students having missed the equivalent of two weeks of class.
  • Experts say the district must help schools target those frequently absent students, rather than focusing mainly on school-wide attendance. To aid that effort, some student-researchers have been surveying their peers about the personal hardships and punitive policies that keep them out of class.
  • What’s next: The district’s absenteeism rate will continue to be closely watched by the state and local activists. It remains to be seen whether León will unveil a more comprehensive plan to attack the problem.

Amazing work unfolds in Newark classrooms

Despite the district’s steep challenges, Newark’s schools are filled with remarkable students and educators — some of whom we’ve spotlighted this year.