Live on a Jumbotron, Newark’s new superintendent shares his big plans with 7,000 district employees

School hasn’t started yet in Newark, but the district’s students and staffers are already learning that their new boss intends to do things differently.

Roger León, a former principal and administrator who became superintendent on July 1, asked all high school students to attend orientation sessions this week.

He ordered every district employee to call several students’ families in the coming days to remind them about the start of school on Sept. 4.

And he summoned all 7,000 or so of those employees — everyone from teachers to custodians to central-office staffers — to the Prudential Center in downtown Newark on Tuesday for a meeting that was part pep rally, part strategy session.

León’s remarks at the all-staff event Tuesday morning, and a school board meeting that evening, offered the fullest picture to date of the new superintendent’s intention to shake up the district, which returned to local governance in February after 22 years under state control — even as he provided few details about how he plans to accomplish the remarkably ambitious goals he laid out, including having every student pass the state exams.

“We’re going to get someplace incredible; we’re going to get there fast,” he said on the Prudential Center stage, his image projected onto the arena’s Jumbotron screens. “There are going to be stories told about the work ahead.”

León spotlighted some sobering data, which showed the steep climb ahead.

He began with individual schools’ pass rates on the 2018 PARCC exams, which the state has shared with districts but not yet released publicly. The data showed that less than a quarter of students passed the math exams at 24 of the district’s 37 elementary schools, which were listed in order from highest to lowest-performing on the oversize screens. Among 15 high school programs, 12 had fewer than 25 percent of students pass the math tests — including Eagle Academy for Young Men of Newark, where just seven students passed.

León did not share the districtwide pass rates for 2018. But in 2017, 24.4 percent of Newark students were proficient on the PARCC math tests, compared to 43.5 percent statewide. In English, 32 percent were proficient, meaning they scored at a level 4 or 5, compared to 55 percent statewide.

León also highlighted the district’s troubling attendance figures. Nearly 10,800 of the district’s 36,000 students were “chronically absent” last academic year, meaning they missed more than 18 school days, according to data León presented. The numbers suggest the district’s chronic absenteeism rate, which was 30 percent in 2016-17, has barely budged. Research shows that students who frequently miss school tend to perform worse on tests and are more likely to drop out of school and enter the criminal-justice system.

“We have a lot of work to do,” León said at the board meeting, where officials presented more detailed data.

Against that backdrop, León announced several goals for the coming school year that are hugely ambitious, if not entirely improbable.

First, he called for 100 percent attendance. (The district’s average daily attendance in 2016-17 was about 90 percent.) Second, he set a goal for all students to achieve proficiency on the PARCC exams. (Last year, the state set a target of 31.5 percent of Newark Public Schools students to achieve proficiency in English and 24.6 percent in math.) Finally, he said the district should be “second to none,” but did not explain how that would be measured.

The district has not released a public document detailing León’s goals or his plan, and a spokeswoman did not respond to emails asking her to elaborate.

Without going into detail, León touched on a number of changes he is planning, which he said will help put the district on an upward trajectory.

To boost attendance on the first day, León is asking every employee to call the homes of five students — a campaign he is calling “Give Me 5!” He is also planning to bring back attendance counselors, who in the past were responsible for calling families and searching the streets for absent students. Former Superintendent Cami Anderson laid off 46 attendance counselors in 2013 to help balance the district budget, but León said he would restore those positions using $4.3 million in savings that he said were the result of his recent move to force out 31 central-office administrators.

“Effective tomorrow, we will have a [job] posting for attendance counselors,” León said at the staff meeting, drawing cheers. The police department will also provide some officers to join the counselors on truancy patrols, he added.

He also introduced a plan to address the stark divide between the district’s six magnet schools and seven traditional high schools. The magnet schools, which admit students based on their academic records or artistic talents, have far higher test scores and graduation rates and lower absenteeism and dropout rates than the traditional schools, which must admit anyone who enrolls.

Part of his plan involves pairing up traditional and magnet schools to participate in joint staff training and share curriculum. Each traditional school will also establish a specialized program related to the theme of its partner school. For instance, Weequahic High School will develop an engineering program with the help of its partner magnet school, Science Park.

León gave employees a document illustrating his vision for the district titled “NPS Clarity 2020.” The framework features a flow chart tracing students’ movement through the school system, a dozen “keys to 2020,” and six “game changers,” including alumni, internships, and “wraparound services.”

Many of the planned initiatives are not likely to begin until next year, including the specialized “academies” at the traditional high schools and the truancy patrols. Meanwhile, León said his administration is reviewing the district’s policies around graduation, discipline, and grading.

Even if the new superintendent’s vision will take time to materialize, several educators said they were energized by hearing his plans. Many rode in yellow buses to the arena wearing matching shirts with their schools’ logos. Afterward, Gregory Holtz, a drama teacher at East Side High School, said it was a powerful experience to see thousands of district employees come together to meet their new leader.

“This is like a new beginning,” he said.