Meet the NYC school official who could be the next to go

The latest city schools official in the running for a top post outside New York is someone who has kept her name out of the headlines. Cami Anderson did this while overseeing the education of some of the city’s most challenging students: high school drop-outs trying to earn GEDs, students in prison, and others in drug rehabilitation programs.

Anderson is one of two candidates being considered for the job of Newark schools chief, the Star Ledger reported today.

Appointed superintendent of the alternative schools district, known as District 79, in 2006, Anderson immediately began shaking up the schools under her control. She closed the city’s remaining schools for pregnant women, known as P-schools, and overhauled the Department of Education’s programs for students studying for the GED exam. As part of a district-wide reorganization, she helped negotiate a deal with the teachers union that required many District 79 teachers to reapply for their jobs.

Yet despite these changes, Anderson has largely worked out of the public eye.

“People have made a lot of comparisons of her and [former Washington D.C. schools chief] Michelle Rhee,” said someone who worked for Anderson. “Michelle was this very vocal ‘I’m not going to do this with these people anymore’ leader, and Cami really took a different route.”

“She’s really done a great job at staying under the radar and not having these big public fights and having these public disagreements,” the former employee said.

Anderson may owe some of the relative obscurity she’s worked under to her constituency. Most District 79 students don’t have parents who will rally on the steps on City Hall or call their elected officials if they’re displeased. Her decision to work with the city’s teachers union likely also played a role.

Early in her tenure, Anderson decided to overhaul four of the city’s long-standing GED programs and rid them of some of their weakest teachers. Many of the people in education I talked to for his post said that, at the time, District 79 was seen as a dumping group for students traditional high schools couldn’t handle and teachers they didn’t want.

Rather than waging a battle with the United Federation of Teachers in the New York Post, she negotiated an agreement that required teachers to reapply for their jobs to a committee composed of both union and DOE officials. The teachers who were okayed by the committee went back to work; those who weren’t had to find new jobs.

Anderson’s new GED system has a referral center or “hub” in every borough where students are tested and then placed in a GED preparation class depending on how close they are to being able to pass the exam.

Michael Friendman, the union chapter leader of GED-Plus — the program’s new name — said the view that the GED programs, pre-Anderson, were in a state of total disarray is unfair.

“Wonderful things happened before the reorganization and I think that part of the story is very very important,” Friedman said. Still, he said that the system’s new structure created a clear path for students at very low reading and math levels to work their way out of intensely remedial courses into classes aimed to getting them to pass the exam.

“That is working better,” he said, “but still many of them aren’t getting GEDs.”

In January, an editorial in the New York Times cited statistics showing that 78 percent of students were completing the city’s program, graduating with GEDs before they turned 21 and aged out of the system.

Anderson took similar reorganization steps with other programs. She shut down the last of the city’s schools for pregnant students and instead invested those resources in programs that help teenage parents while they attend their regular high schools. She also closed seven one-year transition programs called New Beginnings and were aimed at students who had dropped out before.

“She shut down the lowest-performing programs and not only maintained the ones that were doing well, but ensured that the best of the teachers available across the programs were the ones who wound up with the jobs,” said former Deputy Chancellor Eric Nadelstern. “As easy as it is to say that, it is difficult to actually accomplish in an urban district.”

Critics of Anderson’s approach have blamed her for high principal and teacher turnover rates in District 79 under her leadership and for sometimes foregoing outside input. Last summer, teachers at the two of the alternative programs on Rikers Island learned that Anderson had decided to close their programs and reopen them as one program in the fall. In the intervening months, they would have to reapply for their jobs.

“We’re certainly for improving programs but no one’s going to convince me that they just woke up in June and thought this had to be done,” said United Federation of Teachers Secretary Michael Mendel at the time.

Anderson also faced some negative attention last summer for applying to open three charter schools for students at risk of dropping out. Some criticized that, as a board member of the charter schools, she would be overseeing schools competing with the district for city resources and students.

“Her whole point was she wanted to do the alternative high schools without the red tape that’d be involved in doing it within District 79,” said a source who was close to the charter application process.

Though the city’s Conflict of Interest Board ruled that Anderson could serve on the board, she withdrew the proposals and resubmitted them with Teach for America’s New York director Jeff Li as the lead applicant. SUNY’s Charter School Institute approved two of the schools, the first of which will open in Brooklyn next fall with the name ROADS (Reinventing Opportunities for Adolescents who Deserve Success) Charter School.

People who have worked with and for Anderson during her time at Teach for America, New Leaders for New Schools, and the DOE said that she has always wanted to run a school system.

“I think that everybody who’s known her has always thought she’d do this,” said a former colleague. “She’s very much a chief executive.”