Change takes a positive turn in Newark
Superintendent Cerf fosters bipartisan support to improve student achievement
July 14, 2016—Under former superintendent Cami Anderson, Newark Public Schools spent more per-pupil than any other district in the nation – a whopping $25,000 – but failed to improve achievement for its predominately minority student population. In a new article for Education Next, Richard Lee Colvin reports that Anderson’s replacement, Chris Cerf, is effecting positive change for students and leaders in a district previously plagued by conflict through his commitment to listen before acting.
Cerf is working to grow and improve the reform initiatives Anderson put in place using state backing and Mark Zuckerberg’s infamous $100 million gift. In recent years Cerf’s efforts have started to bear fruit: the suspension rate is down 37 percent. The graduation rate has risen to 70 percent from 61 percent in 2011. And about one in three Newark students attends “beating the odds” schools, those that outperform schools with similar demographics in their state in reading and math.
Key to Cerf’s success is a dramatically different strategy than what his predecessor employed: transparency and bipartisan collaboration. Cerf is fostering support from former opponents, such as the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board, whose input he seeks on expenditure decisions although he has ultimate decision-making power. He also is working with Mayor Ras Baraka, who ran for election on a platform opposing Cerf’s predecessor, to end state control in Newark – a goal leaders and families in the district have hoped to achieve for decades.
Despite recent strides, charters remain a contested issue in the district. A quarter of Newark’s 47,000 public school students attend 43 charter schools, diverting $226 million of the district’s $990 million total budget. But a recent school board election in which a new “unity” ticket won is reason to hope that the charter-district conflict might be dying down. A joint effort by Mayor Baraka, the Newark City Council, school board members, the leaders of many charter organizations, education-related nonprofit groups, and several local and state representative to procure state aid for both district and charter schools is another sign factionalism is waning.
Cerf says he has always made decisions with the best interests of students in mind, but his experience with stakeholders in Newark has taught him a valuable lesson about community. “I appreciate, in a way that I hadn’t before, that there is an essential value in listening and giving people an opportunity to seriously engage on important questions.”
To receive an embargoed copy of “Continuing Change in Newark: To protect reform, Chris Cerf builds collaborative relationships” or to speak with the author, please contact Jackie Kerstetter at email@example.com. The article will be available Tuesday, July 19 on www.educationnext.org and will appear in the Fall 2016 issue of Education Next, available in print on August 29, 2016.
About the Author: Richard Lee Colvin, a longtime education journalist, currently manages the writing team at the U.S. Department of Education. He wrote this article prior to joining the department last April.
About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit www.educationnext.org.