There are approximately 12,000 fewer students attending traditional Newark Public Schools than there were just five years ago. Roughly 10,000 of those former Newark Public School students attend one of the 27 Newark Public Charter Schools operated by 18 different providers. Approximately 2,000 are simply off the rolls, either because families moved, or because the children are not attending school. If no new charter public schools are approved and opened in Newark, and only those currently operating grow to previously approved scale, a full 40% of Newark's school-aged children will be educated in a public charter school within two years.
The result? A 250 million dollar budget gap in two years, compounded by soaring infrastructure costs associated with maintaining or bringing up to code underutilized and dilapidated school buildings and holding on to excess staff, all while working to educate those young people who, for many reasons, have academic, social, and emotional needs that require exceptional skills, and additional resources for them to be successful.
Of the schools currently operated by the Newark Public School district, not one is rated as "excellent," and fewer than 20% are considered in the "good" range. That leaves over 80% of the district schools in the "poor" designation in terms of student achievement. These include K-8 schools with fewer than 25% reading on grade level, and high schools with fewer than 20% graduating with a traditional diploma.
Faced with poor performance, underutilized, crumbling schools, bloated administrative and support staff costs, a growing excess pool of teachers and principals, a widening budget deficit exacerbated by the exodus of children and families to charter public schools, communities decimated by violence, high chronic absenteeism, children and families living in fear, and the impact of concentrated poverty on children and their readiness to learn, Superintendent Cami Anderson and her team have developed and are prepared to implement a bold plan in 2014.
The plan, as currently configured is complicated and most certainly (and obviously) controversial. It also highlights the need for dispatch and systemic change that goes far beyond anything that has been tried to date. If nothing is done, and done quickly, it is likely that the Newark Public School District, as we know it, will cease to exist in less than five years.
With an understanding that data is available to support everything that is being presented, here is a brief summary of what is being proposed and/or already taking place in Newark and why:
1. Accelerate but simultaneously cap charter school growth; blur the lines between charter public and district public schools by focusing on providing approximately 100 excellent school options to accommodate all Newark children.
2. Enforce data sharing agreements and manage a universal enrollment process for both charter public and district public schools that prioritize neighborhoods in the choice process. In other words, stop allowing charters to empty neighborhoods, but rather, bring high performing charters to neighborhoods to operate a subset of low performing district schools (avoiding the closure of those very schools by the district).
3. Move promising district models that have emerged over the last several years, such as Eagle Academy for Young Men and the All Girls Academy of Newark, as well as Newark Early Collage, and Newark Leadership Academy (all district schools) into under enrolled and low performing comprehensive high schools. This essentially saves these under enrolled and low performing high schools from closure, expands promising models, and turns every high school into some form of a magnet school.
4. Close or "resite" a small number of under enrolled district schools located in buildings requiring substantial investments just to bring them up to code, much less have them serve as 21st century learning facilities.
5. Use 100 million dollars recently appropriated (with more expected) by the School Development Authority to begin construction of two new schools in neighborhoods where the demand for district schools is high and where buildings are the most in need of improvements.
6. Operationalize a one-time waiver on union requirements in order to "right size" the district based upon quality and effectiveness and not simply seniority. This, (if granted) will result in a substantial number of teachers, principals, and support staff being terminated. Of this group, it is the support staff, predominantly Newark residents working in highly prized jobs in maintenance, security, food service, and clerical work, that is the most troubling as they support the very children the district is working to serve. At this time, the district is seeking between 7 and 11 million dollars of private funding to assist in providing a "soft landing" for these individuals. This will include funding for certification programs, workforce development, and transition support—both financial and through coaching and job placement services.
7. Already empty buildings owned by the district, as well as a couple that will be empty as a result of students attending other district public or public charter schools will be utilized by a smaller, more effective and efficient central office staff, currently being housed in leased space at 2 Cedar Street at a cost of 4 million dollars per year.
The anticipated outcomes?
• More resources driven to classrooms to support teaching and learning.
• Fewer, but better equipped, more technologically advanced, safer and healthier school buildings.
• Reduced erosion of neighborhood schools as a result of prioritizing neighborhood schools in the universal selection process—for district public and charter public schools.
• More funds redirected to expanded learning time opportunities and increased staffing for social-emotional learning and family intervention specialists.
• A collaborative district/charter sector with transparency, accountability, as well as increased numbers of special education students being served by charter schools that have opted into the universal enrollment process (currently 70% have opted in).
These changes will be layered on top of:
• A more robust teacher evaluation and professional development protocol.
• A negotiated agreement with the Newark Teachers Union that provides a vehicle for teachers to vote on extending the school day in exchange for additional compensation.
• A more rigorous principal and vice principal recruitment and retention program.
• Greater equity for all children to be educated in learning environments that have a higher probability of young people being on track for college.
Will it work?
As with most bold initiatives, the devil is in the details. Change is hard enough when the trust level in a community is high. It is almost impossible to facilitate sustainable reform when trust is extremely low. When trust is high—when people feel like they have been heard, when they see positive results of previous decisions, when they feel like their children are not part of someone's experiment, and when they recognize that those who are designing and implementing change have their best interests and the best interests of their children in their hearts, they forgive the inevitable implementation challenges and missteps.
When trust is low—as it is presently in Newark, there are not enough data decks, community presentations, evidence, research, or PowerPoint presentations, to keep good people from reading bad things into evolving plans developed by outsiders, who are perceived as less interested in helping children than in building their resumes for personal gain. In a bifurcated, oppositional, often contentious city, where people have been lied to and ripped off for generations, by people and organizations who claimed to be here to help, who can blame them for being upset by people who seem to represent those very same interests, now looking to close their schools, ruin their neighborhoods, and take their children and their jobs?
Add to this a Mayoral election scheduled to take place in May of 2014, that is flaming the embers of discontent to serve the political interests of candidates, and you have a situation where even strong, positive community leaders, including members of the clergy, have either gone silent in their support, or have recanted their support altogether.