Accelify Blog

Newark School Woes Transcend Money (NJ)

April 11, 2011

NEWARK — Six months after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg appeared on Oprah to give $100 million to improve Newark’s strapped and struggling schools, $99 million is still sitting in the bank.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker quickly raised $43 million in matching donations. But what’s followed has been less rosy:

•The superintendent left in February after being fired by Republican Gov. Chris Christie; a new leader hasn’t been named. The state has controlled Newark’s schools since 1995.

•A plan to close some schools and to let charter schools share space with public schools infuriated parents — especially after it was revealed the plan was written by a consulting firm founded by New Jersey’s acting education commissioner.

• Booker has been criticized for not revealing enough about the sources of the $43 million and for spending $1 million on a survey of parents’ thoughts on school reform.

“It’s like they have somebody trying to figure out how they can screw this up the most,” says Richard Cammarieri, a former school advisory board member. “Everything they’ve done is totally tone deaf.”

So has anything changed for Newark’s 40,000 schoolchildren since the Facebook gift?

“A lot,” Booker says. “Suddenly Newark went from sort of a status quo (school) district to a district that is focused on reform.”

“Absolutely not,” says City Councilman Ras Baraka, Booker’s political rival and also a high school principal. “The real on-the-ground stuff, no.”

Only about half of Newark’s high school students graduate, and half of those do so through a special test for those who flunk the standard proficiency exam.

Booker contends that Newarkers are ready for more charter schools and longer school days and support efforts to weaken teacher and principal tenure rules. Those changes “all poll very dramatically well in our city — but we’ve never taken dramatic action on anything,” he said in an interview. “Now, from the governor’s office to the school board, you have a lot of alignment on what it’s going to take to make those reforms.”

Little agreement has been on display at raucous public meetings where parents, students and teachers have opposed proposed changes.

“These are people’s babies, and you don’t just make decisions about people’s babies without engaging and having some sort of communication with the parents,” says Shavar Jeffries, school advisory board president.

Critics of the current plan say good changes already underway will be neglected if the focus is on charter schools. They cite the 3-year-old Global Village School Zone, a network of seven schools that offers both education and social services. Brick Academy is a school run by teachers.

“If you know there are pockets of success in this city, you get those people and ask them what’s working,” says Michael Iovino, a history teacher at a high-performing magnet school.

Charter schools “are like the new Air Jordans,” says Carol Tagoe, the mother of three children in a Global Village school that is being merged with another underpopulated school. &qu ot;Everybody wants to get them, and then when the dust settles, we realize that was a big mistake.”

Charter school parents object to being called anti-public. Kimberly Barton’s third-grade son Kymor goes to a charter that is planned to share space with a public school. “We just want to make sure we have someplace to go next year,” she says. “The problem is that everyone thinks that charters are trying to take over, which we’re not.”

Booker says his plan involves far more than charters: In September, more schools will have extended school days, principals will have more authority, and new public schools will replace badly performing ones.

Even so, the mayor has been challenged on his legal authority to implement changes — despite Christie’s announcement that Booker is in charge of fixing the schools.