After weeks of planning, Newark’s new superintendent starts rolling out changes

From security protocols to school start times, Newark’s new superintendent is ready to start making his mark on the system, he announced at Tuesday’s school board meeting.

Superintendent Roger León, a 25-year veteran of the Newark school system, has kept a low public profile since taking the helm of the district on July 1. But behind the scenes, he has been quietly meeting with hundreds of school stakeholders as he crafts a detailed plan that he intends to lay out in the coming days, he said during the five-hour board meeting.

“On the 22nd of May, you made a very important decision,” León told the board, citing the day he was selected to lead the district, “and the superintendent takes it very, very seriously.”

Beginning on May 23, León began conferring with a wide range of people who have a stake in the school system — union leaders, philanthropists, alumni, parents, higher-education officials, district employees, school board members, students, and the mayor, he said. He also sat down with Newark’s charter-school leaders, surprising some observers who expected the former district school teacher and principal to be less accepting of charters than his predecessors, who encouraged the charter sector’s expansion.

He called that pre-July 1 transition planning his “running start.” The current phase is his “first 100 days,” he said, before dropping some hints about the coming changes.

School safety agents will soon scan the ID cards of all school visitors, whose information will be entered into an electronic database, board members said during the meeting. Their names will be cross-referenced against an online database of registered sex offenders. The district has already purchased the scanning equipment from a company called LobbyGuard, which will replace the handwritten visitor logs that schools currently use.

“We want to make sure that everyone who’s entering into our buildings to conduct business — whether it’s at our schools or our central office or any of our locations — is actually screened properly,” León said, adding that the scanners will be installed in every school over the course of the coming academic year.

Board Member Leah Owens asked whether the district had considered how the security change could affect immigrant families, especially those who are undocumented and may lack official ID cards or be leery of having their information stored in a district database. Eric Ingold, the district’s executive director of safety, said that safety agents will manually enter the contact information of visitors without ID’s, which the district will not share with law enforcement agencies unless they have a warrant.

“That information does not go beyond the district,” he said. “That information stays internally.”

León also said he wants to establish more consistent procedures across schools. That will involve setting a standard time when every school will open its doors in the morning and a set time — from 6 to 8 p.m. — when schools will hold evening parent meetings.

“We cannot be a district where everything is a different day and a different time for everything,” he said. “We will create order in this administration.”

Next Tuesday, León will address all district employees — from teachers to janitors to assistant superintendents, he said. He plans to unveil more of his agenda then, and delve into more substantive issues, such as students’ academic progress, that he did not discuss at length at the board meeting. (A spokeswoman could not immediately say whether the event would be open to the public or the press.)

One initiative he previewed, called “Give Me Five,” will require every school employee to keep tabs on five students. While León did not go into detail about the campaign, it appeared to be a way to ensure that students are showing up to school and staying on track academically. Last school year, nearly one in three Newark students was chronically absent, meaning they missed 18 or more school days.

At one point during Tuesday’s board meeting, León shared that a few times this summer he had to take a break from the intensive planning sessions with his team. “I needed to get away from them and they needed me to get away from them,” he said, drawing chuckles from the audience.

On those days, he left his office and met with students — a practice he developed during his years as a principal, he said. This time, he visited with high-school students attending summer school.

“I share with you that they gave me the energy and the revitalization to move forward,” he said.