Students are the ‘heartbeat’ of schools: Newark’s incoming superintendent shares his vision for the district

In the week since he was named Newark’s next superintendent, Roger León said he has received hundreds of congratulatory text messages and emails from teachers and former students from his 25 years working in the Newark school system.

“The very interesting common theme is that we’re doing this,” León said. “That we’re going to go somewhere together.”

Now comes the hard part. On July 1, the longtime educator and administrator takes the reins as superintendent. In a 45-minute phone interview with Chalkbeat on Thursday, he talked about his past and his plans for the school system. For those who hope — or fear — that he will simply undo the policies of the self-described reformers who preceded him, attracting national attention as they overhauled much of the district, León’s comments may come as a surprise to some.

The son of Cuban immigrants who was raised in Newark and attended its schools, the 49-year-old León has envisioned this moment for decades. And so has the city: Since 1995, the state has controlled the district and appointed its superintendents. When the city’s elected school board finally regained authority over the district in February, many in the city assumed that the board would choose a Newark native to oversee the schools. (The board had tried to make León superintendent once before, but was overruled by the state.)

Still, León has his work cut out for him. He must help the district meet the requirements needed to fully return to local control, balance the district’s budget, work with the city’s many charter schools (who may be wary of his leadership), respond to demands from a teachers union eager to reassert its authority, and ensure that measures of student learning continue to show growth. (A recent study by researchers from Harvard found that students’ annual growth on state tests initially declined after reforms were enacted beginning in 2011, but rebounded in recent years.)

In his conversation with Chalkbeat, León talked about some of what he’s learned working in schools and his expectations for the future. Far from distancing himself from his predecessors’ policies, he praised some of the city’s charter networks, called past reform efforts “good work,” and suggested that he will keep in place an often controversial enrollment system.

Towards the end of the interview, León spent a full five minutes listing all that he hopes to accomplishment as superintendent. Then he paused and added, “No pressure.”

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You started your career as a teacher and a principal. Over the years, what did you find makes a good school?

It’s all about focusing on children.

I call the students in our classroom the most significant heartbeat in our building. The teachers are the closest to the students. They become the chief person responsible for making sure that they understand what students need, that they provide the service as it relates to instruction, and they’re meeting students where they are and getting them to where the expectation has been set.

Those components result in a school where everyone would select it as a choice option. Where student achievement exists. Where there’s a culture in the school where both teachers and students want to be there. Because students feel that they’re being listened to, that they’re getting the love and support of caring adults, and the teachers in particular are provided with the necessary resources and time, and are being very reflective of their practices in the classroom.

How are you going to balance the need to hold teachers accountable for student achievement, but also to make them feel appreciated and not blamed for the challenges that schools face?

This work is very, very difficult work. Teaching is not easy at all. So we will have to have teachers at the table to assist us in the work. They will assist in critiquing our policies and in creating policies. They will assist us in whatever are our particular best practices that we have seen that are important.

In that, the pressures of performance on high-stakes tests, I assume that will still exist. The shift is going to be that we will be at a point in time where this isn’t just about the standardized tests that our students will be judged by. We will set a stage with the support of our teaching staff and school leaders to be able to engage in conversations not only in our city, but across the state, as to how we are best meeting the needs of our students.

The recent state-appointed superintendents argued that the district needed to improve drastically, and made often unpopular decisions such as closing schools and changing the way teachers are evaluated. Do you feel that same sense of urgency that the system needs to do better for students — and are you willing to make changes that some people might not agree with?

The work that has occurred in the past is good work. We’re at a point right now where we are saying that whatever success has been accomplished to date is good, but it’s not good enough.

I see the superintendency as a baton-passing exercise. There is a race. There is a race that says our community has to be better, and we really can’t wait two years for that. There is a race that says our children need services, and they need them now. There is a level of support that our teachers need, coaching that our principals require. All of that is needed now.

As it relates to specifics like teacher evaluations, closing schools, very specific things like that, I think that our city is very sensitive to people making decisions and then telling them what the decisions were.

So I think any conversation that we have on any topic is going to really involve and have a good pulse of what people think. And I want to be clear that, sometimes, we’re not going to agree.

One policy the school board has already been reevaluating is the universal enrollment system that lets families apply to district and charter schools. Do you think that’s working, or does it need to be fixed or replaced?

I think the whole enrollment conversation has to focus on, what was its purpose? Why does it exist? I think that’s part of the work and responsibility that I have.

The intent behind parents choosing where their children attend school is one I agree 100 percent with. I believe families make decisions where their child should go, and I don’t think anyone should change that reality.

Throughout all of the iterations of One Newark, we at one point had an appeals process that encompassed a body of people who represented both charters and our central office staff, that reviewed appeals — that provided a comfort to people.

I was on the committee. One of the things that we did is we made sure that there was a personal touch to every parent who had an appeal, however many there were.

Over time, that process changed. One of the things I would reinstitute, because I think it made sense in its creation and implementation, is an appeals committee.

The city’s charter sector has expanded rapidly in recent years. Some critics, including Mayor Ras Baraka, have called for it to stop growing — but that isn’t something the superintendent controls. So what will be your stance on charters and how will you interact with that sector?

I think that the entire charter experiment has not been seen in the way I foresee my administration seeing it.

And that is that the charter schools that are in Newark specifically are implementing certain practices that we may not have ever implemented in our school district. Whether it’s mentoring former students to become teachers like North Star [Academy] is doing. Whether it’s intervention strategies that are being utilized for students who are having problems like KIPP is doing. Whether it’s forecasting how to prepare eighth graders for admissions into some of the most prestigious schools like Robert Treat [Academy] is doing.

Those are the conversations that we need to be having. Those are the learnings that we need to engage in.

That’s a partnership that I envision works both ways. Where I want the charter schools to come to our schools because there’s something incredible that we’re doing.

There’s this wall that exists. There’s a tension that was very, very loud and has subsided and has kind of reared its head again. I’m going to take all that energy and seize it, and say, “We’re going to work together to help children in Newark do better — and better in all of our schools.”

You haven’t even started yet. But once you do, how will you measure your success as superintendent?

That we partnered with agencies who felt that the business in the city of Newark of educating children was equally important to them.

That parents and students ultimately reside in the city of Newark. That they commit their lives to making the city of Newark better.

That principals, that teachers, that staff members, were all in.

Graduation rates will be up. Student achievement will be high.

That children are actually coming to school. That they feel safe while they’re in school.

That they’re involved in extended classroom experiences that enable students to not only read what’s occurring in the world, but also to have the firsthand experience of living what is read in textbooks.

That we will be able to say that the locally controlled board of the city of Newark got it right.