Newark School Chief Cami Anderson Is ‘Killing A Dysfunctional System’

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It’s easy to see that Cami Anderson struggles with her conscience as the superintendent of the Newark public schools, the largest district in New Jersey. She wonders aloud about the consequences of improving 30 out of 100 schools while making the other 70 worse. Is a grade of 30% passing?

“We don’t want to create awesome speed boats for some, but then the Titanic sinks faster for the others,” Anderson told an audience at the recent New Jersey School Choice Week conference in Jersey City. “How do we get to 100?”

But after nearly four years on the job, she acknowledges that she’s not up to even 30%. She says about 10 district schools in Newark, which has been under state control since 1995, were described as good when Republican Gov. Chris Christie appointed her in May 2011. Now, she says it’s 20 or 22.

Anderson presides over a project known as One Newark, a revolutionary universal-enrollment program that assigns students to public and most charter schools through one application. It was up to her to redesign a system that has gone from charter schools enrolling 5% of the students to 40% in seven years. As students flocked to well-regarded charters run by KIPP and North Star and enrollment in her traditional public schools plummeted, she realized she had to bring the name-brand charters into the game plan. Instead of opening grade by grade in the downtown area, she asked them to consider their “moral obligation” and take over existing schools in downtrodden areas so those neighborhoods wouldn’t implode as school after school was shuttered.

Instead of fighting the charters, she joined them. She’s created the first single-sex public schools in the state in 40 years. There are school fairs at which the elementary, middle and high schools, charters and magnets, pitch their products. Students rank their choices for September and hope for the best. Anderson says only a quarter of the schools are over-subscribed. The most popular schools use a series of criteria – siblings already enrolled, neighborhood, disability, poverty level – to decide who gets in and who doesn’t. Her critics call it her “secret algorithm.” She shrugs. “It’s a version of managed choice, no matter what you call it,” she says.

She’s also put smaller schools together in big buildings and added early-childhood education centers to some grade schools and high schools. Fewer children in the traditional public schools mean less funding, so closings and lay-offs have rocked the city. She is still beholden to the mandated last-in, first-out lay-off system for teachers.  We “can’t act like they weren’t dying,” she says of high schools with ever-shrinking enrollments and 40% graduation rates. “Killing a dysfunctional system and building back up for the children is messy.”

Messy and ugly and loud and downright nasty.

In her first years on the job, Anderson had the backing of Democrat Mayor Cory Booker. She had worked as his “issues and strategy director” during his first, unsuccessful campaign for mayor in 2001-02, before moving on to New Leaders for New Schools, which trains principals and administrators for work in inner-city schools, and then the New York City school system. Booker won a seat in the U.S. Senate in 2013 and was replaced last July by Ras Baraka, the son of the late radical poet and author Amiri Baraka. Her nemesis has his own background in education: he was principal of Newark’s Central High School from 2007 to 2013 while also serving as a city councilman. Last month Baraka sent her a letter demanding her “immediate resignation.” The venom nearly drips as he rips her “experimental education reform strategy” and “attitude of disengagement” and “lack of transparency and accountability.”

Anderson, a native of California and graduate of Berkeley and Harvard, says the attacks against her are 90% personal. Early in her career she worked for Teach for America, which is often enough by itself to get the teachers’ unions riled up. Bob Bowdon, whose 2009 film “The Cartel” spotlighted the problems in Newark, led the discussion with Anderson at the conference. He warned the audience in advance that hecklers and protesters would not be tolerated and that she would take only written questions. Everyone behaved and after nearly an hour of machine-gun-fast answers, Anderson scooted out a side entrance for the 10-minute ride back to the Newark border.

It’s not a discussion of the Newark system without a mention of the $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2010. Anderson waved off any direct connection to the money, saying it predated her. “I don’t run the foundation,” she says. “It has little to do with me.” The district, she adds, has benefited from the donations of Zuckerberg and others, which have gone into financing the teachers’ contract, building the universal-enrollment plan and developing accountability systems.

And when questioned on the $20,000-plus in annual per-pupil spending, Anderson cited the poverty and special needs of much of her student body, but also noted the reality that much of the money “does not make its way to the kids.” The bottom line? “We’re not getting the ROI, the return on investment, we should be getting.”

Baraka is standing by, waiting to take control. “The first step in a transition to local control of Newark’s schools is a short-term transfer of authority to the mayor,” he wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times last October.

As the daughter of a community activist in Watts after the 1965 riots, Anderson argues that she engages the community “one conversation, one coffee klatch, one dinner party at a time.” She’s in classrooms twice a week and meets PTA heads in their homes. Is it enough? “We’re moving the needle in Newark,” she says. But it’s clear from the clenched jaw that she hears her critics’ attacks as she ponders the fate of her Titanic.

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