year in review

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

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall

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

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
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

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
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.

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.

Education Inequalities

Is Michigan ready for a ‘grand bargain’ to improve its struggling education system?

PHOTO: Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat
Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of the Grand Rapids school district, speaks during a panel discussion that also featured, from left, Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and former U.S. Education Secretary John King.

A new political dynamic in Lansing has put Michigan in a position to potentially see the kind of education transformation that helped catapult Massachusetts to its status as the top-performing state in the nation, says a former U.S. Secretary of Education.

That bit of optimism from John King, who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2017 and is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, came after nearly three hours of sobering discussion during an event Wednesday about the need to address inequities in education in Michigan.

Several times, King used the term “grand bargain” to describe what Michigan needs. It’s a term many Detroiters will remember from the Detroit bankruptcy and the deal that was a key part of getting the city out of bankruptcy.

As it relates to education, the term “grand bargain” has been used to refer to the bipartisan agreement struck more than two decades ago in Massachusetts that had broad buy-in from business and education groups, teachers, and parents, to improve academic achievement. The gist: The state invested more money in schools. In return, standards and accountability were increased.

King said Michigan is poised to reach the same consensus and invest more money in education, in particular investing money more equitably so the highest-need students are getting the most funding. He said there needs to be a thoughtful approach to accountability, as well as more investments in teacher preparation and support.

He sees it happening because of new leadership at the state level, including Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and new Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

“This is a moment where the new leadership in Lansing could come together … and it could be truly transformative.”

The event Wednesday, which took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was organized by the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education advocacy and research organization. The topic was inequities in education and the need to provide equitable opportunities for children regardless on where they live.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the organization, said Michigan ranks 43rd out of 47 states for the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts.

“Students and families pay the price for this under-investment,” Arellano said.

She said the experiences of states like Massachusetts that have seen striking improvement provide hope for Michigan because they show transformation can happen over five to 10 years.

Michigan has been falling behind other states in performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam that tests a representative sample of students in each state. The state’s performance, in fact, has shown little to no improvement over the last decade.

“We rise and we fall together. In Michigan’s case, we’re falling together,” Arellano said.

The audience at the event’s two panel discussions also heard from speakers such as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit school district. He said that often, when K-12 educators talk about the need for more resources, “you see the rolling eyes of lawmakers.”

But, Vitti said, “It takes funding to educate children. And it takes more funding to educate children who enter … with more challenges.”

Panelists agreed that Michigan is at a pivotal moment because of its new leadership. And they came up with solutions they think will make a difference.

Melody Arabo, outreach specialist at and former Michigan Teacher of the Year, said the state needs to address a lack of resources for educators. She said that in a classroom of 30 students, a teacher can have some reading at the kindergarten level and others “who can read better than I can.”

The materials that teachers have “are not meeting those needs. Teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week going online looking for resources.”

David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy, said Michigan should look at what successful states have done and adopt best practices. Just as important, he said:“Stick with it. Don’t change it every year.”

For King, the solution to improving schools is simple and starts at a young age.

“If Michigan is going to improve, it will need a surge in high quality early learning that prepares every child for kindergarten or beyond,” King said.