the mayor's agenda

Promising a ‘heavy hand’ in education, Baraka hints at plans to influence school policy

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

When the state ended its 22-year takeover of the Newark school system in February, it was a historic moment for the city — and a major victory for Mayor Ras Baraka, who spent years crusading against the takeover.

Now, with the elected school board back in control of Newark’s schools and Baraka seeking a second term, the big question for him on education is: What next?

“We are going to try to have as heavy a hand as possible in the school district by fostering collaboration,” Baraka told Chalkbeat. “We don’t have to be in charge of it literally in order to have influence over it.”

Collaboration will be key for the mayor to help steer the schools, which fall under the school board’s purview — not his. For him, it will be a delicate dance between respecting the board’s hard-won authority and ensuring that the schools do not backslide under local control.

To promote his education vision, Baraka said he plans to meet directly with principals and the districts superintendent, along with outside organizations that want to support the city’s schools. And while he said the school board should remain elected rather than appointed by the mayor, Baraka still intends to steer the direction of the board — and by extension, the school system — by backing candidates who share his vision and possibly even bringing in experts to help craft district policy.

“I wish that there was an opportunity for us to get some higher-ed folks, some other people, in a kind of ad hoc way to be part of programming and decision-making,” he said in an interview last week. While it’s important to have board members who have a stake in the system even if they aren’t policy experts, he added, “Sometimes we might need a curriculum specialist.”

Newark’s mayors have long found ways to shape the school system even after they stopped appointing school-board members in the 1980s and the state seized control in 1995.

Baraka’s predecessor, Cory Booker, saw the state takeover as a golden opportunity to push a set of sweeping reforms, which he achieved with the help of then-Gov. Chris Christie and $200 million in private donations. Baraka took the exact opposite approach, negotiating with Christie to end the takeover and reempower Newark’s school board.

Now that the schools are back under the board’s control, Baraka does not plan to step quietly aside.

Instead, he is endorsing a slate of three candidates in the board’s April 17 election. For the third year in a row, he joined a North Ward councilman and the city’s charter-school leaders in backing that slate — even though he believes that charter schools “suck the life” out of district schools by siphoning students and funding.

Baraka’s pick for the slate, Dawn Haynes, is a City Hall employee. But the mayor insisted that does not mean she will do his bidding on the board.

“Ultimately, the only time you have full control or influence over those people is during the election,” he said, referring to candidates he has endorsed. “Once they get on that board — history has proven to me, human nature — people are going to do what they want to do.”

Yet there may be other ways to influence the board’s decision-making, Baraka suggested.

He would like to see experts from the various colleges and universities based in Newark weigh in on Newark Public Schools programs and curriculum, he said, adding that he has discussed the idea with local lawmakers and university officials. While the plan to give outside experts a voice in district policy making is still being developed, Baraka said it was partly in response to concerns he has about some board members.

“A lot of folks look at the board — because it’s elected — as a stepping stone to other politics; they’re not really as committed to the schools as they should be,” he said. “Which is a reason why we need to get some other professionals to be at the table” to deal with “curriculum issues, issues around attendance, some of the problems we really have.”

(One current board member, Crystal Fonseca, is running for city council in May’s municipal elections. She is part of a slate of candidates aligned with Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins, who is opposing Baraka in the mayoral election.)

Officials at Rutgers University-Newark have had preliminary discussions with City Hall about how they might support the school board, according to Peter Englot, the university’s senior vice chancellor for public affairs. Rutgers professors could act as consultants or provide training to board members, he said.

“If the city school district wants us there,” Englot said, “we will be there to do whatever we can to support the decision-making process and the professional development of the school board.”

Looking beyond the board, Baraka said he would convene biannual meetings with the city’s principals to discuss their shared priorities, and would stay in close touch with the superintendent.

He also promised to keep promoting his pet cause — a two-year-old effort to turn a handful of South Ward schools into “community schools” that offer students physical and mental-health services in addition to academics. A “children’s cabinet” of city agencies and outside organizations is now trying to find a way to spread the model, Baraka said.

“We talk about how to grow the school-wide model from just the South Ward, a couple of schools, to how do you get it across the district,” he said. “How do you sustain it?”

Mateus Baptista, a former advisor to the mayor on education, said that creating more community schools is an “enormous endeavor” that will require public buy-in and help from partner organizations. Baraka is well-positioned to lead that charge, said Baptista, now a program officer at the Victoria Foundation.

“I see him as that sort of ambassador,” he said, noting that Baraka does not have formal authority over the schools. “It’s soft influence.”

Transition Planner

‘It is so much work.’ Meet the state monitor trying to help Newark keep control of its schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Anzella King Nelms spoke to Newark parents and educators during a recent presentation organized by the Abbott Leadership Institute.

One day in 1995, state education officials arrived in Newark to begin the process of taking over the city school system, which had been deemed failing and mismanaged. Anzella King Nelms, a Newark schools official at the time, was there.

“I was in the superintendent’s conference room on the day that the state walked in to take over Newark,” Nelms said during a recent talk. “It was a day that our hearts dropped.”

More than two decades later, the state has finally ended its takeover. And it has appointed Nelms, a former Newark deputy superintendent, as its representative to help the district complete its return to local control.

“Today, I stand here representing the state,” Nelms told the audience. “How ‘bout that.”

On Feb. 1, Newark’s elected school board was restored to its full status as a board of education, following 22 years in a diminished advisory role. Many in Newark celebrated that day as a triumphant return to a locally run school system. But, as Nelms well knows, that was just the start of the return — and there is still potentially rocky terrain ahead.

In order to fully transition back to local control, the district and school board must abide by a two-year plan that sets milestones for them to meet and possible sanctions if they don’t. To help them stay on track, the plan calls for a “highly skilled professional” to act as a state monitor, compliance officer, and consultant rolled into one.

“This was essentially seen as a two-year insurance policy,” said Alan Sadovnik, an education and sociology professor at Rutgers University-Newark, referring to the transition plan and state monitor. “You simply could not give back total control until the district demonstrated that they were in fact able to operate themselves.”

The state chose Nelms as its highly skilled professional in Newark. But despite her crucial role, she’s mostly worked behind the scenes. (A state education department spokesman declined to make her available for an interview, saying people in her role don’t do interviews because “speaking to the press isn’t their core area of expertise.”)

However, Nelms gave a presentation on Saturday to some 40 parents, educators, and community activists at an event sponsored by the Abbott Leadership Institute, which offers trainings on school policy to the public. Chalkbeat attended the talk, during which Nelms gave an inside look at her efforts to help Newark get and keep control of its schools.

“Putting words on a paper and saying that you’re moving back to local control is one thing. Making it happen is another,” she said during the talk at Rutgers University-Newark. “And it is so much work.”

Each step of Newark’s release from state control is spelled out in its 73-page transition plan, which the state education department created last year with input from Newark district and city officials and after several public meetings. It details the many duties of the highly skilled professional, or HSP.

That person must help the district set its budget and establish strong relationships with the charter school and higher-education sectors, according to the plan. The HSP must also make sure the school board attends required trainings and does not overstep its authority, while mediating any conflicts that arise between the board and the superintendent, whom the board will appoint later this month from a list of candidates that includes the current interim superintendent, Robert Gregory. And the HSP must work with a new accountability office that will monitor the district’s progress, while flagging any possible ethics violations.

As a state monitor embedded in the district, the HSP could be seen as an occupying force. The state may have hoped to avoid that perception by appointing Nelms, who has roughly 40 years of experience as a Newark teacher, principal, and district official. It was a savvy choice, said Mary Bennett, another longtime Newark educator who was part of a committee that helped plan the return to local control.

“I don’t think they could have gotten someone with more understanding of the Newark community, the Newark context, and the Newark board of education than Ms. Nelms,” she said.

Since stepping into the role in February, Nelms has become intimately familiar with the transition plan, which she called a “precious document.”

At Saturday’s presentation, she held up a thick binder into which she’d sorted the plan into color-coded sections. She explained that at her cubicle at Newark Public Schools headquarters she has posted a blown-up copy of the state’s “accountability scorecard” — a measure of how faithfully Newark has carried out the plan, which stipulates, among other things, how the board should go about hiring a new superintendent and what trainings its members must undergo. (One requirement is a “review of past ethical lapses in the District.”)

If the district does not adhere to the plan, which also covers curriculum and budgeting, then it could face a series of escalating consequences. Those include extending the transition period, stepping up state oversight, or even reinstating state control — though that would be an extreme and unlikely move.

Many of the plan’s requirements center on the school board, which gained three new members and a new chairperson last month. As the board adjusts to its newly empowered role, Nelms’ job is to toggle between supervisor and coach.

So she observes their meetings and takes notes — “I record everything that I hear, see, and so on,” she said — arranging extra support in areas where she thinks board members need more guidance. One such area is recognizing the limits of their own authority, she said. (The board’s job is to hire a superintendent and sign off on policy decisions, while the superintendent is in charge of actually running the district.)

“There is a little misunderstanding here, so we’re working on that,” she said. She added, “They may make a misstep in thinking they have the power to do something, and we just have to carefully redirect them.”

If all goes well, the transition will officially end on Jan. 31, 2020. Then Newark’s schools will be fully under local control and Nelms’ job will be complete — a prospect she welcomes.

“I don’t want to have to continue in this position,” she told the audience on Saturday. “I want this district to totally be in your hands.”

Superintendent search

For the first time in a generation, Newark will pick its own schools chief. Meet the interim leader hoping to get the job.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

A. Robert Gregory, who became interim superintendent of the Newark school system in February, did not wait to shed the interim status before settling into the corner office reserved for superintendents.

He has adorned the walls with graduation pictures of him and his parents, awards he won during his nearly 20 years as a Newark teacher and principal, and a black-and-white photo of Muhammed Ali knocking out an opponent. On his desk he placed a well-worn copy of “Savage Inequalities,” whose inside cover contains an inscription his late father — himself a well-known Newark principal — had written when Gregory considered quitting during his second year of teaching: “Never give up on our people!”

“I’m very proud to be in this seat right now,” Gregory said during an interview last month in his office on the third floor of Newark Public Schools’ new downtown headquarters. “And I’m not trying to give it up.”

Newark regained authority over its schools this year after more than two decades of state control — making the next superintendent the first to be chosen locally in a generation. Whoever is selected will face the enormous task of forging a new path forward for New Jersey’s largest district, after wealthy outside donors and state-appointed leaders spent years reshaping its schools.

The city’s elected school board has until May 31 to hire a new superintendent. It has not yet announced the finalists of its national search, but Gregory is expected to be one of them. A Newark native with deep knowledge of its schools, he is considered a frontrunner — but one with some liabilities, who may be up against stiff competition.

Gregory is the handpicked successor of Christopher Cerf, the state-appointed superintendent who stepped down in February. Cerf and his predecessor, Cami Anderson, are associated with a series of controversial policies — closing low-performing schools, expanding the charter-school sector, trying to remove ineffective teachers — that were championed by so-called “education reformers” but fiercely opposed by the city teachers union and many Newark residents.

Besides his endorsement by Cerf, Gregory was also chosen as a “Future Chief” by the group Chiefs for Change, which has ties to the education-reform movement. Yet because of his local roots and relatively brief overlap with Cerf in the district office, he has retained the trust of many who might otherwise be wary of such associations — including the teachers union.

He is also revered by many of the students, parents, and educators he’s worked with over the years and has used his time as interim chief to raise his public profile. On Saturday alone, he made appearances at a school-board retreat, a robotics competition, a teacher hiring fair, a South Ward schools event, an LGBTQ student celebration, and a high-school jazz concert.

Still, he has relatively little experience as a top district official. By contrast, one of the other candidates the board is said to be considering, Andres Alonso, previously ran the Baltimore school system.

And Gregory may not be the only local candidate in the running. Another rumored contender is Roger Leon, a former Newark principal and current assistant superintendent who was recommended by the board to become superintendent in 2015 but was turned down by the state.

Now, as the superintendent search enters its final stage, any jockeying among candidates and lobbying of board members is happening out of public view. But whoever is hired will instantly become the public face of the district and the person whom board members, interest groups, and politicians turn to as they try to influence the district’s direction.

“Whoever becomes superintendent of Newark Public Schools is going to have to navigate through this maze of nonsense,” said Loucious Jones, a longtime parent-activist who said the challenge will be to put students ahead of politics. “Can you be true to the children of Newark? Can you be their advocate?”

From teacher to leader

One bright morning last month at the Sussex Avenue Renew School, Gregory was seated inside Principal Darleen Gearhart’s office, talking about roller skates.

He has visited about two dozen elementary and middle schools since February. For Gregory, who is most familiar with high schools, the 90-minute tours have allowed him to meet new principals and start forming what he calls a “heat map” — a rough grouping of schools according to how much support and supervision they need. For principals, the visits have provided a preview of the man who could become their next boss.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Gregory reviewing school data with Sussex Avenue Renew School Principal Darleen Gearhart.

At Sussex Avenue, a once-troubled school that has steadily improved under Gearhart, Gregory sat next to the principal and reviewed the school’s rising test scores. “Phenomenal,” he said, before giving Gearhart a fist bump. But Gregory was equally impressed when she explained how she had taken her teachers’ suggestion and bought roller skates for students to use during phys-ed class.

“Roller skating, I love it!” Gregory said. “But the better thing is, your teachers thought about it. So you’re tapping into what motivates them. Smart — Ed Leadership 101.”

Gregory has honed his own leadership style in the two decades that he’s worked in Newark schools.

As an English and social-studies teacher at Camden Middle School in the early 2000s, he led his students to victory in a statewide civics competition. One year, as part of that contest, they lobbied the city to install a traffic light at an intersection where a student had been killed.

He motivated students by being forthright with them, said Khadijat Yekeen, Gregory’s former student at Camden.

“He’d tell us the reality is we’re already at a disadvantage because the color of our skin and the city we come from — but we can push past that,” recalled Yekeen, who credits Gregory with inspiring her to become an English teacher.

In 2006, he became the founding principal of a new magnet school, American History High School. Like other magnet schools, it has competitive admissions, though Gregory said it “wasn’t a real magnet school” because many admitted students entered far behind academically. Still, any future superintendent will likely have to address complaints by parents and some educators that magnet schools exclude too many Newark students.

At American History, Gregory went to great lengths to support and encourage the faculty, said Hassanah Blake, a former teacher there.

Gregory would email teachers articles about their craft or bring in books from home and occasionally took over a class himself so he could model certain techniques. During Teacher Appreciation Week, he planned a different treat each day — Dunkin’ Donuts gift cards, pep rallies, free professional massages.

He also allowed teachers to design their own curriculums as long as they ignited students’ interest, said Blake, who is now a vice principal at University High School.

“The autonomy he gave us is what allowed the magic to happen,” she said. “That was a powerful experience.”

Still, if teachers failed to meet his expectations and did not show a willingness to improve, he would encourage them to leave — or force them to. Gregory said he was one of the few principals to successfully bring a charge against a tenured teacher before the state’s tenure law was changed in 2012.

“I will never back down from that fight,” he said last month. “We can build skill; we can’t build will.”

As with other tactics he used as a principal, they could encounter new complications and resistance if enacted across the district.

Politics 101

In 2015, Gregory made the leap from principal to district leader — a role, he’s finding, that is infinitely more political than running a single school or classroom.

After Gregory served as assistant superintendent of high schools for less than two years, Cerf promoted him to deputy superintendent last June. In effect, Cerf had chosen his replacement if he stepped down early — which he did in February, in an effort to jump-start the district’s transition back to local control. (Technically, the school board could have chosen someone else to serve as interim superintendent, but its members voted for Gregory.)

Still, Gregory does not see his role as simply extending Cerf’s legacy. Gregory said his predecessors had achieved some positive results, but he plans to chart a different course.

“I would definitely not characterize myself as a ‘reformer,’” he said, “because I don’t believe in a playbook. I believe in differentiated leadership and instruction based on the situation.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Gregory observing a lesson at Sussex Avenue Renew School.

Unlike self-described reformers, Gregory said he’s not interested in overhauling the district or wading into pitched policy battles. For instance, he called arguments over the merits of traditional versus charter schools “a stupid fight to have.” Instead, his focus is on applying his approach as principal to the entire district — recruiting and supporting strong teachers and allowing high-performing schools to earn autonomy.

“The next wave of this work is developing people,” he said. “How do we make our teachers better? How do we make our principals better so we can get better outcomes for kids?”

But the flipside of developing talent — how to determine who is a good teacher (or not) and what to do with those who receive low ratings — remains hotly contested. The next superintendent will undoubtedly be dragged into the political fray over that and other issues.

The Newark Teachers Union, for example, opposed Anderson and Cerf at every turn. Although Cerf promoted Gregory, NTU President John Abeigon said he does not associate the protégé with his predecessors. Of Gregory, Abeigon said, “He’s professional, he’s affable, he gets it.” But the union leader said he would push hard on Gregory or whoever becomes superintendent to undo any remnants of the previous era.

“Eliminate anything and everything associated with the last eight years of corporate reform,” Abeigon said, “and terminate anyone who was hired by them.”

For his part, Mayor Ras Baraka has promised “to have as heavy a hand as possible” in the district, even though he has no direct authority over it. He joined a North Ward councilman and charter-school supporters in backing the three winning candidates in last month’s school board election. And he helped choose a controlling four of the seven members of the committee that selected the superintendent finalists, whom the full board will vote on in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, the board is eager to reassert itself after offering only suggestions during the 22 years of state dominance. Board member Tave Padilla said the board will not interfere with the day-to-day operation of the district, but board members do expect to have a say in district policy and finances.

“The superintendent’s office has to come to the understanding that we’re not advisory anymore,” Padilla said. “We’re not going to advise you that this is what we want to do — we’re going to tell you.”

Local support

As Gregory tries to hang onto his perch in the superintendent’s office, he may end up competing with colleagues in the district.

Several board members and community leaders have made clear that even though the state required a national superintendent search, they would prefer a homegrown leader. Any local candidates will come with their own bases of support.

Joanne Gobin, a former parent at American History High, said the possibility that Gregory will become the next superintendent is one reason she keeps her children in Newark schools. Cheryl Whitley Crawford, who taught alongside Gregory at Harold Wilson Middle School in the 1990s, said he’s the only colleague she remembers from that time.

“I swear by him,” she said. “He can turn this district around.”

During his visit to Sussex Avenue Renew School in April, Gregory stopped in a hallway to hug a kindergarten teacher who said, “I know this guy!” On a stairwell, he embraced a school safety agent whose nieces and nephews he once taught, and whose mother was an usher in his childhood church.

But for all his local credentials, Gregory’s fate is ultimately up to the school board — a fact that Sussex Avenue’s chief innovation officer, Christopher Constantino, alluded to at the end of Gregory’s visit.

“I wish you good luck, man,” Constantino told him. “I hope you get it.”

 

Clarification: This story was updated to note that the Newark school board voted for Gregory to fill the role of interim superintendent.