Newark regains control of schools as optimistic parents look past hot classrooms on first day

NEWARK, New Jersey --  It was the first day of school in the largest school district in New Jersey Tuesday and its reopening was highly significant in a variety of ways.

It was the first school day in nearly a quarter century in which the City of Newark controlled its own schools, rather than the state making the school district's decisions. Also, the first major decision by the city now that school's back in session ended up leaving many of its students in uncomfortably hot classrooms in the heat.

While some parents weren't pleased with the overheated classrooms, they did seem happy with other decisions made by the district's new superintendent. Roger Leon is himself a graduate of the Newark Public Schools, and Tuesday also marked the first time in memory that both the head of the public schools of Newark and the city's mayor had done their entire pre-college education in Newark Public Schools.

"I graduated from this school from kindergarten to eighth grade," Leon said to a class of eighth graders at his alma mater, Hawkins Street School. "So I know that when you walk these hallways and enter these classes, there's a brighter future ahead for you."

He did a tour of schools with Mayor Ras Baraka. On the list of schools they toured were Science High School, from which Superintendent Leon had graduated, and University High School, Mayor Baraka's alma mater.

"We want to grow the graduation rate," the mayor said in an interview. "Make sure they go to college, especially [starting] at the elementary school level."

His and the superintendent's work is cut out for them. When the New Jersey state department of education took over control of Newark Public Schools in 1995, the graduation rate was 54 percent. That rate has now increased to nearly 80 percent.

That improvement was under the oversight of the state. The city will now be under pressure to improve on it and other metrics.

"They know everybody's going to be watching," said Peter Woolley, provost and political science professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University. "So much of the health of the city depends on improvement in the school system."

"The state not having Newark control its own schools was a vote of no confidence," Woolley continued. "You can't try to attract Amazon and have no confidence in the schools."

Newark is a finalist for the location of a second headquarters for the Amazon corporation, whose main headquarters is in Seattle.

Having so much attention placed on its performance could be part of the reason why Newark Public Schools made a decision on the first day of classes to keep them in session all day, despite temperatures that left some classrooms at nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

"At my school, my whole body was, like, sweaty," said second grader Pedro Budniak.

He attends the Lafayette Street Elementary School, parts of which were built when Abraham Lincoln was president, according to a public school spokesperson.

"Everything on my body was sweaty," said a fifth grader at the school in the city's Ironbound neighborhood. "It felt uncomfortable."

Some parents mentioned that the temperature was high in the classrooms, but nobody complained outright. Instead, they talked about the superintendent's bigger decision, made the night before the first day of classes.

He'd had a phone tree created that required nearly all of the school district's 6,000 employees to call five Newark Public School families, and encourage them to send their children to school on the first day and throughout the year.

"We got all the different phone calls we didn't get before," said Marilina Caravajal, a parent at the Lafayette Street School. "I believe it's going to be for the best."

Her optimism was shared by some other parents who spoke with PIX11 News. Still, by Newark's own admission, its work is cut out for it. The school system's website admits that "proficiency rates on the new, tougher PARCC test are low." It points out that in English, 22 percent of its students met the standard for proficiency. In math, the rate of proficiency among Newark Public School students is 17.5 percent.