NEWARK – On the day the One Newark school reorganization plan went into effect, the state-appointed leader of New Jersey’s largest school district felt confident despite controversy.
“It’s going great. We’re excited about everything we’re seeing,” said Newark School Superintendent Cami Anderson, the prime proponent of the One Newark plan, outside East Side High School on Thursday. “I’ve been to five schools today, and I’m really happy to report that our enrollment across the district is up for the first time in over a decade. That’s a sign that we’re on the move and people want to be with us.”
Anderson toured schools around Newark on the first day of the implementation of the One Newark plan, which she announced in December. The initiative includes the expansion of charter schools, which already serve approximately 20 percent of the city’s students, as well as the closure or consolidation of certain public schools.
Newark’s schools were placed under state control in 1995. Anderson was appointed to head the state-run Newark school district, New Jersey’s largest, by Gov. Chris Christie in 2011. A wave of Newark public school student protests called for the removal of Anderson, as well as for the termination of the Anderson-backed One Newark plan, earlier this year. Anderson, however, had her contract renewed for three years by the Christie administration in June.
One facet of the plan is that instead of permitting parents to pick the school closest to their home, the new enrollment model allows them to research schools and rank their preferences for public or charter schools throughout Newark. Yet although this component of the plan was meant to improve the city’s public education system by increasing student options, the initial results have left many parents angry, confused and frustrated, with some parents calling for a boycott of the city schools.
When asked about a potential boycott, Anderson hoped that parents and school officials can “find ways to work through any challenges or disagreements that are not about hurting kids and putting them behind.”
Hundreds of parents and students streamed into Newark Vocational High School on West Kinney Street on Thursday, seeking assistance for the reportedly 8,000 students still unsure as to where they will attend school this year. Other parents and students complained about an untested transportation system set up under the One Newark plan designed to get students to their assigned schools.
Faced with these questions, Anderson pointed to the scale of the Newark school district.
“Remember, there are 43,000 students in Newark,” Anderson said. “Prior to universal enrollment, those families had to go school to school to try to resolve their issues. We served over three thousand families in the last ten days prior to school opening. Of course in a system this big, you’re always going to have individual concerns and glitches. We have worked feverishly to give good customer service. Our job is to respond with kindness and empathy, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, the former principal of Newark’s Central High School, has been vociferous in his opposition to the One Newark plan. His opposition to the plan, and to Anderson’s leadership of the city’s schools, was a major factor in his victory in the city’s mayoral election in May. Baraka has continued to voice serious concerns about the plan and has repeatedly called for the return of the Newark school district to local control.
Baraka and Anderson were both at Louise A. Spencer School on Thursday morning to look into any first day concerns.
“It’s our job to work together. Our kids’ future are at stake,” Anderson said before meeting with a group of about 30 East Side High School students . “I know [Baraka] is passionate about kids. You know I’m passionate about kids. This is not about personalities, and it’s not about politics. It’s about children.”
Despite Anderson’s statement about the first day of school in Newark being solely about the city’s children, there was a notable statewide political presence alongside Anderson at East Side High School on Thursday.
“There are always issues that arise, but for the most part, we’re seeing a pretty typical back-to-school day,” said Acting Education Commissioner David Hespe. “As the change process continues, I think people will get more and more comfortable that not only is this the right thing to do for the children of Newark, but it’s being implemented well. The superintendent has her vision…and I think so far she’s implementing it very well.”
“The Acting Commissioner is here to show his support and offer the resources of the administration for Newark on day one,” said Kevin Roberts, spokesman for Gov. Christie, who is on an official trip to Mexico. “I’m just here to observe.”