After 22 years, Newark regains control of its schools from the state, but challenges remain

NEWARK, NJ —  Imagine having somebody else make every major decision for you for 22 years, and that exactly describes the situation at Newark Public Schools, until Monday. The change came about after the school district — New Jersey's largest — showed marked improvement in student performance over recent years. Still, Newark's mayor and its interim school superintendent admit that the district still has ample room for improvement, which they assure will happen.

After a set of court rulings in the 1980s and early 1990s that concluded that Newark had engaged in "abuse" of its students by underserving them, the state government took control of the city’s school system in 1995. At the time, the graduation rate was 54 percent.

Through a combination of measures, including closing low-performing schools and expanding charter schools, students' performance improved over time. In 2017, the graduation rate was at 78 percent.

Some of the changes were achieved through measures advocated by Newark families, as well as by some local school administrators over the years. However, the reforms had to pass muster through state-appointed superintendents, at least two of whom became infamous for their relationships with the Newark public school community.

When Beverly Hall, the first state-appointed superintendent, left after four years, the district was laden with massive debt, and accusations of fiscal mismanagement. Hall went on to head the Atlanta school system, where she ended up being criminally indicted for racketeering, conspiracy and other federal felony charges related to a district-wide cheating scandal.

Another state-appointed superintendent, Cami Anderson, resigned in 2015, eight months short of the end of her contract. Her tenure was marked by open hostility against her by many Newark families over her school reorganization plan, One Newark. It de-emphasized neighborhood schools, and instead had the families of the city's 55,000 students gain admission to schools through a lottery system.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka won election in 2014 in large part due to his pledge to get Anderson out, and to achieve local control of schools.

Now that it’s happened, its potential was summed up by a junior at Science Park High School in central Newark on Thursday.

"It could be a good or a bad difference," Alexandre Olivira said. "It just depends on who has the majority power."

Among those now in power are the new, interim superintendent, Robert Gregory. He graduated from Newark Public Schools himself and founded the American History School of Newark 10 years ago. It's a magnet campus that's ranked among the top 30 percent of high schools nationwide, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Gregory, who'd been the deputy superintendent prior to local control, claimed some credit for the district's rising graduation rate. But he said it's not about individual achievement.

"This is about the collective genius of a community coming together to improve outcomes for our kids," he said.

Despite Newark's gains, the rate of its students testing at or above grade level for English is just 28.4 percent. Only 19.8 percent of students test at or above grade level for math.

If the district were to slip back from its gains, it's possible that the state could take over again, at least in theory. Newark's mayor, however, himself a former Newark public high school principal, said that the chance of that is nil.

"We are not turning the keys back over to New Jersey," Mayor Baraka told PIX11 News. “That is just not going to happen."

Instead, he said, his administration, the new school board and the interim superintendent will work to improve performance. The district is trying to incentivize student performance, in part, by creating a city that students will invest in beyond their years in school.

"When you graduate, we need you to push the city and the district forward," he said to students.

More than two dozen New Jersey cities and towns remain under state control, having not shown improvements in student performance. Among the state-controlled school districts are Paterson and Camden. Jersey City is expected to regain local control of its schools before the 2018-2019 academic year.