'It's a new day'

In Newark, will homegrown change replace outsider-led reform?

PHOTO: Newark Press Information Office

Just a few years back, Newark stood at the epicenter of an explosive nationwide campaign where traveling “change agents” tried to reshape urban school districts. Today, it could become the face of a different, homegrown model of change, led by a lifelong Newark resident named Roger Leon.

Leon was chosen this week to become the next superintendent of the Newark school system, which serves 36,000 students and has a roughly $1 billion budget. But long before that, he was a principal trying to revitalize long-floundering schools. Back then, he would gather together his staff members and deliver a simple but stirring message.

“‘All of the problems that exist here in this building — there’s a solution,’” he would say, recalled Havier Nazario, who was a teacher at Dr. William H. Horton School and later University High School when Leon was principal. “‘It’s right here in this room.’”

That message stood in sharp contrast to the one that Nazario felt was conveyed amid the upheaval under state-appointed superintendents Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, who stepped down in February when the state returned control of the district to Newark’s elected school board.

“There was this perception that we were backward — that everyone in Newark from teacher to principal was incompetent,” said Nazario, now the principal of South Street School in the Ironbound section. “That we needed an army from all over the place to come in and fix us.”

When the board voted unanimously in favor of Leon Tuesday night, positioning the longtime educator and administrator to become Newark’s first locally selected superintendent in over 20 years, it sent a clear signal: No more outside armies. We want someone who believes the solutions are in the room.

Not long ago, Newark came to epitomize the so-called “education reform” movement, which promised to transform districts by closing troubled schools, opening charter schools, and rewriting the rules around teacher pay and tenure — actions that have been linked to the district’s recent academic gains. Yet the city has also morphed into an emblem of the movement’s pitfalls: outraged parents, top-down policymaking, and disruptive outsiders, like Anderson, who were eventually run out of town.

Now, the question for Newark’s incoming schools chief is whether he can establish a new model — one that maintains the upward trajectory of test scores and graduation rates while avoiding the excesses and backlash of the reform era. And, crucially, a model that rejects the corruption and complacency that the state cited when it seized control of the district in 1995.

Just as the recent reformers hoped to turn Newark into a “proof point” for their theory of change and a template for other districts to adopt, Leon has suggested that he will make Newark into a model of homegrown, educator-driven and community-embraced change — though what exactly that will look like remains unclear.

“I want us, together, to help Newark serve as a lighthouse,” said Leon, a 25-year veteran of the Newark school system, at a public forum last week. “A beacon of light and hope for our urban districts.”

Newark’s recent wave of reform began in 2010 when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg famously appeared on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” to announce a $100 million investment in the city’s schools. The money helped bankroll a series of sweeping changes that included performance-based teacher pay, a single enrollment system for district and charter schools, and the shuttering of nearly a dozen district schools.

The policies sparked a battle that pitted the self-styled reformers against teachers, their union, and parents. Anderson, who had been recruited from New York, resigned in 2015. She was replaced by Cerf, the former state education commissioner who had helped craft Newark’s reform blueprint. When he took over, he made it his mission to create buy-in for the changes among community members and elected officials in an effort to prevent their dismantling when the district returned to local control.

“The continuation and preservation of the work,” Cerf told reporters in January, “depended a great deal on there being a collective sense of engagement and ownership.”

As further insurance, Cerf made A. Robert Gregory, a respected Newark principal who shared parts of his vision, his second-in-command, which helped position him to become interim schools chief when Cerf stepped down. Gregory was then selected as one of four superintendent finalists, along with Leon and two outside candidates.

While the board had indicated that it preferred a local candidate, it was unclear until the last minute which Newarker would come out on top. After the board interviewed the four men privately on Saturday, Gregory got the most votes in an informal poll, Chalkbeat has reported. But by the board’s closed-door meeting on Tuesday, enough members had changed their votes to give Leon an edge.

Once it was clear that Leon had a majority, the board members agreed to unanimously back him in their public vote. While they may have disagreed on their preferred candidate, they wanted to present a united front in favor of a locally chosen leader — and against state-imposed reformers.

“To unify the board at this time, it’s the right thing to do,” said board member Tave Padilla. “It’s a new day.”

Now that Leon has been tapped to take over as superintendent on July 1, speculation has started about the direction of his leadership. A district spokeswoman said he was not available for an interview for this story.

Critics of the reform movement have celebrated Leon’s selection as clear evidence that the board intends a clean break from the past. They note that, unlike the recent state-appointed superintendents and some of their top deputies and consultants, Leon is a Newark native who attended and taught in the city’s traditional public schools. He coached Science Park High School’s famed debate team, and has established close ties with parents and community leaders across the city — support that was on display when the audience erupted into cheers after Tuesday’s vote.

They also point to Leon’s reportedly fraught relationship with Cerf as an indication that he did not endorse the entire reform agenda, even though he served in both Anderson and Cerf’s administrations. In a Facebook post this week, Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon called Leon’s selection “a unanimous blow to the corporate charter and reform-for-personal profit war machine.”

Cerf, in an email, said he has “always respected Roger” and will support him and the board’s decision.

“NPS has seen record achievement gains over the last several years,” he said, “and I know Roger is committed to building on those foundations to achieve greater and greater success for Newark’s students.”

If some supporters portray Leon as anti-reform, his record is actually more complex.

As principal of the Horton School in the late 1990s, he hired about 20 teachers who had completed alternative-certification programs, according to an Education Week article from 2000. Teachers unions sometimes attack such programs, which include reform-friendly programs such as Teach For America, as a back door that allows unqualified educators into the classroom.

As an assistant superintendent for the past decade, Leon served under four state-appointed superintendents. Under Anderson, when he was responsible for overseeing several elementary schools, he developed a reputation as a demanding manager who made unannounced school visits and scrutinized school documents to see if they were in compliance with district rules, according to a former district employee. Several of the principals he oversaw left the system, the employee added.

Whatever policy preferences Leon may have as superintendent, he is likely to find — like other leaders who took over districts after they underwent massive overhauls, such as nearby New York City — that it’s impossible to simply turn back the clock.

Over the past decade, the share of Newark students who attend charter schools has tripled, to 33 percent. While Leon is not likely to spur on the sector’s growth, he also cannot halt it. Instead, he will have to manage its impact on the district’s budget and perhaps find ways for the sectors to collaborate. (Leon got an early start on that this week when he spoke at a principal training jointly hosted by the district and the Uncommon Schools charter network.)

Charter critics and some school board members have pushed to scrap the universal enrollment system, which allows families to apply to both charter and district schools. But many families have come to like the system, according to surveys. And it would be hard to revive the previous system, where families were assigned to their nearest district school, since some neighborhood schools were shuttered.

Mary Bennett, a former Newark principal who called Leon “extremely intelligent,” said she did not expect him to immediately unwind every policy instituted under state control.

“I’m sure that he is astute enough to distinguish between those things that have been put in place that are working but need to be improved and bolstered,” she said, “and those things that should be changed and replaced.”

Leon will soon shoulder the burden of leading a district that has made recent gains, but still struggles with deep-rooted problems including widespread student poverty, absenteeism, and a shortage of qualified teachers. All the while, he must try to prove — to state officials, but also to observers across the country — that a return to local control does not necessarily mean a pause in progress.

But for now, he seems to be basking in the moment. On Wednesday morning, the day after he was chosen to lead the system where he was educated and spent his entire career, he stopped by his childhood elementary school. Then he made his way to South Street School led by Principal Nazario, who he had years ago coached on a debate team, taught in class, and later managed as a teacher.

At South Street, Leon was named honorary “Teacher of the Month,” then presented with a school notebook and water bottle and given a round of applause, Nazario said.

“He looked at me like, ‘Wow, I’m living the dream,’” he said.

Counselor Comeback

Years after laying them off, Newark brings back attendance workers to track down absent students

PHOTO: Newark Public Schools
Superintendent Roger León (center) with more than 40 new attendance counselors the district has hired.

A new school-attendance squad is on the job in Newark, ready to phone families and track down truant students.

More than 40 new attendance counselors and truancy officers made their official debut this week — part of a campaign by Superintendent Roger León to curb rampant absenteeism in the district. The linchpin of León’s approach is the rehiring of the attendance workers, who were laid off nearly six years ago amid questions about their effectiveness.

The employees — some new and some returning — will help craft school attendance plans, contact families, and bring truant students back to class with the help of Newark police officers.

They have their work cut out for them: Nearly a quarter of students have already missed about two weeks or more of school since September, according to district officials.

In his drive to boost attendance, León also launched a back-to-school campaign last fall and eliminated some early-dismissal days when students tend to skip class. At a school board meeting Tuesday, León said those efforts have resulted in fewer “chronically absent” students who miss 10 percent or more of school days for any reason. So far this school year, 23 percent of students are chronically absent, down from 30.5 percent during the same period the previous school year, he said.

“Right now, we’re in a really, really good place,” León told the board. “Having hired these attendance officers will get us where we need to go.”

A long to-do list awaits the attendance workers, who will earn between $53,000 and $95,531, according to a district job posting. They will create daily attendance reports for schools, call or visit families of absent students, and make sure students who are frequently out of school start showing up on time.

They will also be tasked with enforcing the state’s truancy laws, which authorize attendance officers to arrest “habitually truant” students and allow their parents or guardians to be fined. Newark’s attendance counselors will gather evidence for potential legal actions, deliver legal notices to students’ homes, and appear in court “when required,” according to the job posting.

The district is also establishing a new “truancy task force” to track down truant students, as required by state law. The task force will include both district employees and police officers who will patrol the streets searching for truants to transport back to school.

The teams will be “going up and down every one of our corridors and getting kids in school,” León said Tuesday, adding that they will eventually be provided buses.

Criminal-justice reform advocates across the country have criticized state laws, like New Jersey’s, which criminalize truancy. As a result of such laws, parents can face fines or even jail time and students can be put on probation or removed from their homes. Meanwhile, a 2011 study found that truant students who faced legal action were more likely to earn lower grades and drop out of school than truant students who did not face those sanctions.

While truancy laws may be on the books, districts have discretion in how they enforce them.

Peter Chen, a policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey, has studied absenteeism in Newark and said he did not know how the district’s new attendance workers would carry out the law. But he cautioned against “punitive strategies,” such as issuing court summonses or suspending frequently absent students, which can temporarily boost attendance but eventually drive students further away from school.

“Once the school is viewed as the enemy, as somebody who is out to get the student, it’s incredibly difficult to rebuild a trusting relationship,” he said. “And what we see time and again is that a trusting relationship between a school and a family or student is a critical component to building a school-wide attendance strategy that works.”

Superintendent León declined to be interviewed after Tuesday’s board meeting, saying he would answer written questions. As of Wednesday evening, he had not responded to those questions.

At the meeting, he did not rule out the possibility of the district’s truancy officers making arrests. But he said the police officers’ job was not to arrest truant students, only to protect the attendance workers.

“I need to make sure that any staff members that we hire are safe,” he said.

In 2013, then-Superintendent Cami Anderson laid off all 46 of the district’s attendance counselors. She attributed the decision to budget constraints and limited evidence that the counselors had improved attendance.

The district shifted the counselors’ responsibilities to school-based teams that included administrators, social workers, and teachers. Critics said the district was expecting schools to do more with less, and the Newark Teachers Union — which had represented the attendance counselors — fought the layoffs in court. An administrative law judge sided with the union, but then-State Education Commissioner David Hespe later overturned the decision.

León, who became superintendent in July, promised to promptly restore the attendance counselors. However, his plans were delayed by a legal requirement that the district first offer the new jobs to the laid-off counselors, some of whom had moved out of state. By the beginning of February, all the positions had been filled and, on Friday, León held a roughly 90-minute meeting with the new attendance team.

To create lasting attendance gains, experts advise schools to consider every aspect of what they do — their discipline policies, the emotional support they provide students, the quality of teaching, and the relationship between staffers and families. Simply outsourcing attendance to designated employees will not work, they warn.

Superintendent León appears to agree. In an interview last year, he said he expects all school employees to join in the work of improving attendance.

“The last thing that needs to happen is for people to walk away saying, ‘Oh, attendance is going to be solved because now we have the attendance counselors,’” León said. “No, everyone has to worry about attendance.”

Newark Enrolls

After changes and challenges, Friday’s deadline to enroll in Newark schools finally arrives

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
A student fills out an information sheet at Central High School's booth at the citywide school fair in December.

Newark families have just a few hours left to apply to more than 70 public schools for next fall.

At noon on Friday, the online portal that allows families to apply to most traditional and charter school will close. After that, they will have to visit the district’s enrollment center. Last year, nearly 13,000 applications were submitted.

The stakes — and stress — are greatest for students entering high school. Each year, hundreds of eighth-graders compete for spots at the city’s selective “magnet” high schools, which many students consider their best options.

This year, those eighth-graders have to jump through an extra hoop — a new admissions test the magnets will use as they rank applicants. District students will sit for the test Friday, while students in charter and private schools will take it Saturday.

That’s news to many parents, including Marie Rosario, whose son, Tamir, is an eighth-grader at Park Elementary School in the North Ward.

“I don’t know nothing about it,” she said. District officials have been tight-lipped about what’s on the new test, how it will factor into admissions decisions, or even why introducing it was deemed necessary.

Students can apply to as many as eight schools. Tamir’s top choice was Science Park, one of the most sought-after magnet schools. Last year, just 29 percent of eighth-graders who ranked it first on their applications got seats.

“I’m going to cross my fingers,” Rosario said.

Students will find out in April where they were matched. Last year, 84 percent of families applying to kindergarten got their first choice. Applicants for ninth grade were less fortunate: Only 41 percent of them got their top choice, the result of so many students vying for magnet schools.

This is the sixth year that families have used the online application system, called Newark Enrolls, to pick schools. Newark is one of the few cities in the country to use a single application for most charter and district schools. Still, several charter schools do not participate in the system, nor do the vocational high schools run by Essex County.

Today, surveys show that most families who use the enrollment system like it. However, its rollout was marred by technical glitches and suspicions that it was designed to funnel students into charter schools, which educate about one in three Newark students. Some charter critics hoped the district’s newly empowered school board would abolish the system. Instead, Superintendent Roger León convinced the board to keep it for now, arguing it simplifies the application process for families.

Managing that process has posed challenges for León, who began as schools chief in July.

First, he ousted but did not replace the district’s enrollment chief. Then, he clashed with charter school leaders over changes to Newark Enrolls, leading them to accelerate planning for an alternative system, although that never materialized. Next, the district fell behind schedule in printing an enrollment guidebook for families.

Later, the district announced the new magnet-school admissions test but then had to delay its rollout as León’s team worked to create the test from scratch with help from principals, raising questions from testing experts about its validity. Magnet school leaders, like families, have said they are in the dark about how heavily the new test will be weighted compared to the other criteria, including grades and state test scores, that magnet schools already use to rank applicants.

Meanwhile, León has repeatedly dropped hints about new “academies” opening inside the district’s traditional high schools in the fall to help those schools compete with the magnets. However, the district has yet to hold any formal informational sessions for families about the academies or provide details about them on the district website or in the enrollment guidebook. As a result, any such academies are unlikely to give the traditional schools much of an enrollment boost this year.

District spokeswoman Tracy Munford did not respond to a request Thursday to speak with an official about this year’s enrollment process.

Beyond those hiccups, the enrollment process has mostly gone according to plan. After activating the application website in December, the district held a well-attended school fair where families picked up school pamphlets and chatted with representatives. Individual elementary schools, such as Oliver Street School in the East Ward, have also invited high school principals to come and tell students about their offerings.

American History High School Principal Jason Denard said he made several outings to pitch his magnet school to prospective students. He also invited middle-school groups to tour his school, and ordered glossy school postcards. Now, along with students and families across the city, all he can do is wait.

“I’m excited to see the results of our recruitment efforts,” he said. “Not much else is in my control — but recruitment is.”