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The Left-Right School Discipline Debate Misses the Point. We Need a Third Way.

Imagine a small math classroom filled with exuberant 12-year-olds. They are loud and engaged. One group is working on algebra and comparing notes to solve a problem. Another group is using a self-paced computer program to practice foundational math skills that an assessment indicated to their teacher they needed. A third is being guided by the teacher through a problem requiring complex equations.

​Occasionally, one of the groups erupts in laughter; you might hear someone blurt out, “I am never going to get this” — only to go right back to work. A chime signals the time to change activities; student captains keep the transition smooth. There’s a little horseplay and poking, but within minutes, students are at their stations enthusiastically tackling a new task.

​The scene could be an elite private school, but it’s actually a crowded sixth-grade classroom in one of the country’s poorest ZIP codes. When you visit, you don’t wonder if the teacher can “control” the class or question if poor kids can succeed at high academic levels.

​Instead, you meet a teacher who visits students’ homes and gets to know what makes each child tick. She can vividly describe their dreams, what motivates and triggers each one, how she helps them identify those patterns for themselves. She can talk about the systems and rituals she constructs with students and how she puts them in charge of their learning and behavior.

​She’d invite you to observe class meetings and restorative circles, where students repair relationships and personal damage when the students challenge authority and show disrespect, as they inevitably will, even in this carefully built community. For her and the mission-driven school team she is part of, student discipline means coaching children to develop the habit of persisting to master a skill, however hard.

​Others in her school, from the principal to teachers and school safety agents, will tell you discipline doesn’t mean punishing young people who fail to comply.

​Much has been written lately about whether schools should be called to task for how they discipline kids. Civil rights groups say punitive discipline is racially biased and disproportionately pushes kids of color into an even more racist judicial system that severely limits their life options. They’re right: 10 percent of all high schoolers are suspended; among male African Americans, the figure is about one-third.

​Nearly half of school-based arrests are of African-American students (though they are nowhere near 50 percent of students). Being suspended makes you three times as likely to drop out and three times as likely to become incarcerated.

​Some conservative publications and think tanks, such as the Manhattan Institute, which recently published a study about school discipline, argue that limiting punitive discipline leads to lower teacher morale. To some extent, they are right. Teacher surveys in New York show that some teachers and students report that their schools feel less safe since central administrators have made it much harder for teachers to remove kids from their class.

But the debate about discipline among adults, as it’s being argued, mistakes the response for the cure. Simply decrying the injustice of disproportionate suspensions doesn’t help kids, but suggesting schools will descend into chaos if we stop suspending “bad kids” is worse. We need a third way that integrates a school’s approach to discipline with high-quality, culturally competent school cultures, teaching and learning practices, and student supports, and that builds the capacity of schools to make good on this approach.

​Here’s an analogy. For much of my childhood, I was a competitive swimmer. I didn’t win a lot, though, because my flip-turn was too slow. My coach saw that I took an extra stroke, and though we tried to fix it, my times stagnated. He blamed himself: He’d been too technical, faulted me publicly, didn’t study enough tape. Or maybe he needed to motivate me to work harder.

​In the end, it was all of these. We kept at it and I became much faster. I never heard him say, “Too bad Cami didn’t get the flip-turn gene” or “I’ll bench her if she doesn’t improve that flip-turn.”

​My swim coach and the math teacher I observed have a lot in common. They believe habits can be changed and that it’s their job to figure out how for children who can’t do it alone. They constantly think about adaptations that may help students achieve peak performance. They both have high expectations, but they’re able to seed them by putting kids at the helm.

​We would never say of a child that “he just can’t learn how to read”; similarly we shouldn’t wonder whether young people can learn self-control, how to de-escalate anger, resolve conflict, and focus. We need instead to think of how to effectuate that growth, as if we were coaches of the academic, social, and emotional skills of our kids, even when they challenge us.

​Having taught young people who were suspended, run suspension centers, overseen the schools on Rikers Island, and been in many school lockdowns, I know this is a difficult shift. It takes more than a pious call to “decrease suspensions” or a reliance on individual acts by heroic teachers.

Improving school culture is much more demanding as well as inseparable from the rest of school life. We need to systematically rethink everything we do — from how teachers are trained and supported to how we report and learn from classroom and school-based incidents. We need to take a hard look at whether we are building school cultures that empower all students to perform hard work that is meaningful to them. We need systems that ensure that students who challenge authority or hurt others are coached, not pathologized.

​Most of all, regardless of how difficult it is to reach every student, including those who make bad choices, we have to stop weighing whether or not the status quo is acceptable. When the United States of America has more African Americans incarcerated than were enslaved in 1850, everyone who contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline is either part of the problem or part of the solution.

​For nearly 10 years, Cami Anderson served as a superintendent of schools, first overseeing alternative high schools and programs serving 90,000 young adults in New York City and then supporting 45,000 pre-K–12 students in Newark, New Jersey. She is the co-founder of ROADS, a network of charter high schools dedicated to court-involved youth, and was recognized by TIME magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. A version of this article appeared on The 74 Million.

Persistence: Reflections of a Life-Long Activist

Spring of 1992, I suffered a serious back injury. It was my second year on the University of California at Berkeley’s crew team and I was sitting in the front seat (“stroking”) the Junior Varsity 8 for a dual with the University of Washington. It was an important race. The 6’2” stroke of the Varsity 8 crossed the finish line and quickly headed to the dock so my crew could jump in for our race. We frantically switched places leaving no time to lower my rigger (the arm that holds the oar) before hastening to the starting line despite being more than 6 inches shorter than my teammate. Crew “duals” are brutal. On a good day with the best of equipment you experience seven to eight minutes of excruciating pain and oxygen debt that requires mental toughness and physical persistence that, despite playing many competitive sports growing up, I haven’t experienced in any other setting. About 3,200 agonizing strokes later, I tried to celebrate our personal-best time but was in too much pain to enjoy it.

Why such a tight turn around for our crews? Despite rowing for a school with alumni patrons like Dean Witter and generous sports budgets, the women’s team only had one boat modern enough to give us a chance of winning. We had an incredible and improbable season, but my back was in terrible shape forcing me to sit out several races and battle pain. I was frustrated. Why did the men’s team have a full complement of boats — any one of which was “race quality” — while we, despite training just as hard and getting better results, slept on the floor of alumni houses when we traveled, worked out in an outdated and unsanitary gym, and paid for race gear out of our own pockets?

I thought long and hard and then did what I had been taught to do — take action.

My Mother is an “activist.” Raising 12 children — nine adopted and three biological — she has always been a trailblazer, personally and professionally. She has long believed that adoptions should be open and that interracial adoption can work as long as white adoptive parents are willing to confront their own privileges and the impact of racism on children of color. She’s been outspoken on prison reform, the role an incarcerated parent can play in their child’s life, and the responsibility of adoptive parents to remain open-hearted to the birth families of their adoptive children. My father began his career as an organizer in Watts after the riots. Tapped when he was just 40-years-old to serve as Mayor Tom Bradley’s Community Development Department head, he has been at the forefront of economic justice for low-income communities, neighborhood revitalization, and the role of government to empower communities. He “retired” from the city a few years ago to return to organizing in Watts.

My folks modeled a fierce focus on equity and justice. Equally important, they taught me to question everything including sacred cows and conventional wisdoms in pursuit of what is possible rather than simply what is. They encouraged me to speak truth to power, to be aware of systemic oppression, to be part of the solution and to lead with values and heart.

So, as a college student, I organized a group of female athletes to challenge the university on the basis of gender inequity. We had amazing mentors — my aunt who was a university employee and is a sports enthusiast, the Title IX officer for the University of California, a free-lance journalist who knew a lot about the Title IX law and movement. After a thoroughly-researched, public letter threatening a lawsuit was distributed far and wide, dozens of meetings, and several news stories — the university agreed to massive changes. Female and male sports budgets merged, across all sports, and head coaches were mandated to ensure equity. Literally, overnight, we bought three new boats, moved in to share the men’s boat house, gained access to the best weight rooms at the university, and began to fly — instead of driving 15 hours — to races.

All these years later, everyone involved takes great pride in that victory, and we should. But, that’s not actually what I think is interesting about this story. Persisting to demand equity was one of the hardest things I have ever worked with a group of people to accomplish. And I learned some tough lessons.

Many of my own teammates turned against me. This was shocking to me. I was certain everyone would join in. Who wouldn’t want to fight for what we deserved? Some of my teammates expressed concerns about “raising our head” too much for fear of angering the men’s team or generally appearing to be agitators. Female athletes were friends with male athletes and to say that is was unpopular to point out that what had been happening for decades wasn’t fair is an understatement. Others feared the consequences of equity. We prided ourselves on doing well despite being underfunded. What if we actually had what we needed? Well then there would be pressure to win.

In many instances, “natural allies” turned against us because of parochial interests and fear. Other women’s teams opted not to get involved. They assumed this was a “zero sum” game where some teams would lose and others would win. If push came to shove, they thought they might lose more than they currently had even if what they had wasn’t just. Some worried about being too loud especially because they believed the university would never change, so why take the risk? Many said they were “with us in spirit” but refused to sign their name or speak out because of fear of reprisal and/or concern that they would have stuck their neck out to no avail.

Intimidation was not subtle, nor was the use of power to try to silence our complaints.

University officials took me and several members of our coalition to the University Club to tell us to be “very careful” about our accusations. Coaches from the men’s team issued stern warnings about how I was going to cause irreparable harm to the program and that I would alienate all of my “friends” who were male athletes. Rumors abounded about crew, as a sport, being cut altogether — or that private funding from individual donors didn’t “count” as inequity. These falsehoods were so often and strategically repeated, that many began to take them as fact.

Many benefited from the status quo and were angry about the loss of it — and therefore attacked my character to try to discredit me as a change agent. Upon receiving a scholar-athlete award, the men’s coach (after effusively introducing the male recipient), said of me: “We all know Cami, she is — well — vocal,” (and he didn’t mean it as a compliment). Several people spread rumors about my motivation suggesting my advocacy for equity was a secret plot to get our coach fired and make a name for myself. By the end of the campaign, I truly did not recognize the person — the character — they were making me out to be.

Ironically, the politics of gender played out in a very overt way. Stereotypes abounded. On the one hand I was a “whiner”, a complainer who was so weak that I had to fight battles through letters. On the other hand, I was too aggressive, opinionated and unyielding in my beliefs — the way women who are persistent and goal-oriented are often branded when men with the same qualities are lauded.

Nearly 25 years later, and in honor of women’s history month, I find myself reflecting on those lessons very deeply — the ones I learned from my parents and the ones I learned from the school of hard knocks. As a college student, I found all of this pretty devastating and certainly did not handle every twist and turn with sound strategy and grace. But, our coalition recovered from mistakes and persisted towards resolving a critical issue. And we were blessed to stand on the shoulders of activists who pushed gender equity before us and mentors who helped us stay the course.

As Superintendent of Newark Public Schools (NPS), I am no stranger to controversy and feel many of the dynamics I experienced in my Title IX days — and throughout my life as an activist — are at play in the fight for educational equity (in Newark and nationally). Vilifying the leader is a way of discrediting them and preventing them from earning the trust they need to lead. Fear, intimidation, and gender politics are alive and well. More people benefit from a broken public education system than may otherwise be obvious including people who should be “natural allies” for change. In the face of abject failure, even mediocrity is celebrated and challenging that is difficult. It is wildly unpopular to say what we have been doing is failing and even more controversial to make bold proposals that challenge sacred cows — and adult interests embedded in the status quo.

In the face of recent challenges in our quest to ensure 100 excellent schools in Newark, I remember all of these tough lessons. I reflect on all of what I have learned as a life-long activist. We — the incredible principals, community leaders and NPS staff members who are demanding that we do better for our kids, also garner strength and resolve from students who come to school every day in the face of extraordinary obstacles. We remain focused, reflective on what more we can do to build a diverse coalition, and completely, unapologetically committed to our ambitious goals. If our students can persist to achieve academic excellence, we can persist to deliver on their potential.

A version of this article appears on The Huffington Post.

Cami Anderson Talks Ed Reform, Facebook and What ‘The Prize’ Left Out About Newark

By Interview with Naomi Nix

No city has captured the public imagination about the promise and pitfalls of the modern education reform movement quite like Newark, New Jersey.

Five years ago, Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg, former Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Gov. Chris Christie announced on Oprah that the social media mogul would donate $100 million to help turn around the city’s long-struggling public schools. With state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson at the helm, Newark’s school system underwent deep and wide-ranging changes from merit-based bonuses for teachers to a new enrollment system that expanded school choice.

But those changes were met with intense political opposition marked by headline-grabbing protests and the organized support of city leaders. The pushback culminated in Anderson’s resignation in June. Add to that a much-heralded new book, “The Prize”, written by veteran investigative reporter Dale Russakoff, who explores with incredible detail the fallout of Zuckerberg’s gift. (Read Conor Williams’ Seventy Four review: An Urgent Education Catastrophe Overflowing with Culprits and Caveats)

So what should we take away from the reform story in Newark? And what is the future of education in the city? In her first in-depth interview since leaving Newark, Anderson talked with The Seventy Four over email about her tenure as superintendent during that tumultuous time, lessons learned and what’s at stake in saving urban education.

The Seventy Four: If you had to grade your tenure as superintendent in Newark, what grade would you give yourself and why?

Anderson: I’ll leave it to others to grade, but for those measuring, it’s important to remember that five years ago, less than 30% of the students in Newark were operating at grade level. Ineffective teachers had job security and high salaries while more impactful teachers with less seniority, were ignored or laid off as the district shrunk. Dysfunction and inefficacy was rampant as administrators abused both power and funds to dole out lucrative contracts and jobs that weren’t delivering for kids. School infrastructure was crumbling, further impacting student’s ability to learn as buildings fell apart, transportation was unreliable, and few schools even had the Internet. All of this contributed to a broken system that was not providing the best for students and families that were deeply dissatisfied with the status quo but unable to find a clear path forward to get the changes they wanted for their children.

I came to Newark with a clear mandate to fix a broken system. We made substantial progress in five years to do just that. Newark’s lowest performing schools improved dramatically. Unprecedented partnerships with the charter sector brought transparency to how we measured progress, equity and fairness to enrollment especially for the hardest-to-serve students, and a city-wide shuttle service to increase options for families. Our efforts to find a “third way” to deliver radically different results for kids at scale — neither charterizing an entire system overnight nor trying to reform it from the top down — were trailblazing and have already served as a model for many cities. We recruited transformational school leaders who worked with families to reimagine schools, added time for students to learn and adults to collaborate, and invested over $100 million to upgrade facilities and technology. Ninety-five percent of highly effective teachers were retained and we exited over 40 percent of low performers with the help of a nationally-recognized and hard-fought labor contract. A restorative justice approach helped struggling young people take responsibility for their actions and drastically reduced suspension rates. We built a network of programs for disconnected youth, helping hundred of young people come back and finish school. To top it off, graduation rates rose by 12 percent.

Above all, I think our greatest accomplishment was standing up to entrenched interests and creating a sense of momentum around putting kids first.

What was the truest thing said about you and your leadership during your time in Newark, a comment or observation that left you thinking ‘This person gets it.’

On a monthly basis, I had people pull me aside to say things like “We can see you are about kids”. At one event, a grandmother stood on a chair and applauded me for my courage. “We’ve been waiting for this kind of shake-up — push harder, go faster…you have the guts to do it I can tell.” At a meeting with charter parents, they shared, “We are starting to feel like we don’t have to be ashamed for wanting the best for our kids because of you.” An educator who grew up in Newark once told me, “You’ve spit in the face of fear because of your love for kids and this is a tough place to do that.” A local leader told me, “We needed someone with your backbone focused on what’s right for kids or we would have been stuck indefinitely; we are all silently rooting for you.” I’ve always strove to align my core values with my actions, regardless of how hard it is or how many forces are pulling me in other directions. When I heard observations like this, it made me feel like the people to whom I was truly accountable really got it — even if the circumstances made it nearly impossible for them to show support more overtly.

The criticism of you was often vicious and personal. A poster depicting a drawing of you with the word liar scrawled on it in what looked like blood dripping down your forehead was a regular fixture at protests. How did you handle those moments? What did you tell yourself then? What do you tell yourself now?

The challenge of being a change agent trying to keep the interests of kids, not adults, at the core of decisions in a system characterized by patronage and machine politics took a toll. At times, the criticism felt unrelenting and deeply personal. Support from the students, families, and my team helped keep me moving forward as well as my amazing family and friends. Knowing that I was working to change a system to help young people get access to the excellence they so richly deserve also helped keep me focused.

It might sound trite but I also honestly felt like my struggles paled in comparison to what my students and their families managed on a daily basis from chronic economic hardships, family and community violence, learning disabilities and more. Their resilience put everything in perspective and inspired me to put aside whatever was thrown at me.

To what degree do you think your race or gender played a role in the public controversy surrounding your tenure as superintendent?

I am not from Newark and cities like Newark have a long history of discrimination and racism that is further underscored by a long line of outsiders that have come in promising change but delivered something quite different. I knew, understandably, that people would be initially skeptical of me as an outsider.

The daughter of two social justice activists who raised a multi-racial family of 14, nine adopted because many were deemed “hard to place”, I know progress is often hard-fought and respect is earned. Confronting my white privilege and other advantages early in life made me a fierce advocate for equity with insight about how hard it is to tackle seemingly intractable issues. Twenty years as a change agent has also made me aware that keeping kids, not adult interests, ever-present would evoke the ire of those who benefited for years from the status quo. But polls and thousands of families on waiting lists for charters also indicated to me that there was a real appetite for change. Conversations in grocery stores, on street corners, and in school hallways made me hopeful that trust and momentum could be built; families want excellent schools and they know when they aren’t getting them.

A hard truth: women make up about 75% of teachers, but less than 40% of principals, and 15% of CEOs or superintendents of school systems. We are missing out on a lot of talent because the glass ceiling is alive and well even in education. As a female CEO, I believe you are likely to experience harsh criticisms for actions and attributes that would be lauded if you were a male CEO. Your authority and expertise is challenged often and when you don’t follow advice that you believe isn’t right, many complain you don’t listen or worse — which generally means you are not compliant. The key is to remain open to feedback and to continue growing while not internalizing the persistent stereotypes you face trying to push change as a woman.

One narrative that developed around Newark Public Schools is that you were a kind of a lone ranger left to defend reform in the city on your own. What do you think of that assessment?

Reflecting on my time in Newark, one of the things I am most proud of is the team we built at Newark Public Schools. I spent considerable time recruiting, selecting, retaining, and coaching the absolute best, from principals to central office. There were already many talented individuals in Newark that were often pushed down or silenced by the bureaucracy and I worked hard to identify and support those people. My time in the (former New York City schools chancellor Joel) Klein administration, Teach for America and New Leaders meant that I had a vast national network of amazing professionals that I could mobilize to share their expertise and passion with NPS. Our team was diverse, high quality, and courageous. It would be a disservice not to acknowledge their hard work and impact.

Not to take away from the team you built in Newark, but we wanted to know if you ever felt politically abandoned by either Gov. Chris Christie or his administration or U.S. Senator Cory Booker?

Newark Public Schools status as a state-controlled district is unique and due to extreme circumstances from previous decades. By forming a strategic alliance between the state and the city, Gov. Christie and Sen. Booker jump-started the reform that Newark so badly needed. While they weren’t there for the day-to-day management, I always felt they supported the reforms we were undertaking. It did make things more difficult when they were pulled deeply into other issues that meant their much-needed local advocacy was less present.

Let’s imagine it’s 2011 again and Gov. Chris Christie’s administration offers you the job of Newark schools superintendent. Do you take it, knowing what you know now? Why or why not?

Absolutely, when I look at the successes we’ve accomplished and the impact they’ve had on the kids, I wouldn’t change accepting the job. I’m also beyond grateful for what I learned on the journey.

A rising star in education policy comes to you today and tells you she wants to take over a medium-sized struggling urban school district. What do you tell her?

If you have the passion, focus, and skill-set to step up, do it! When I was offered the post in Newark, I almost didn’t take it. “I am a COO type”, I thought. I am not interested in the limelight, or in being on TV. Several of my friends who have endeavored big things urged me otherwise and I am so glad they did.

I would also share preconditions for success to consider on the front-end:

  • If there is a large investor, work on a memorandum of agreement to ensure their resources will be aligned with the bold plan you put in place.
  • Recruit a high-level executive whose entire role is to negotiate partnerships with the charter and reform sector — or your agenda for equity and systems change could be on a collision course with theirs.
  • Have resources for combatting a political onslaught that is likely to be launched against you if you are doing your job. You need money and expertise for literature drops, paid media, door knocking, message shaping, a social media plan, and correcting misinformation in real time. In the absence of that, you’ll spend too much time on issues that have nothing to do with delivering for kids.
  • Above all, make sure you surround yourself with brutally honest and unconditionally loving friends, family, and mentors to support you through the tough times.

If you ran into Mark Zuckerberg on the street, what would you say to him?

What are you doing in Harlem?! Seriously, I’d thank him for investing in the future of children in underserved communities and his continued dedication to refining his approach and helping kids. He’s one of the most important leaders of our time and the fact that he’s willing to give of his time and money to dare to build a better reality for kids is critically important.

Can you elaborate on your relationship with him? Do you think you and Mark Zuckerberg shared the same vision for Newark schools or could those goals have been better articulated on the front-end? Tell us about a time of disagreement.

Everyone working in Newark shared the same vision: radically improving outcomes for students and delivering on their extraordinary potential. We were all, and still are, working to achieve that goal. I had the pleasure of meeting Mark several times and felt his personal commitment to equity and young people was inspiring.

If you ran into Dale Russakoff, what would you say to her?

I respect Dale and am glad she wrote a book that put the stories of Newark’s students and families squarely in the middle of a national conversation. I also think some of her criticisms of me and school reform are fair and important to reflect on.

But I also think “The Prize” trivialized or ignored critical pieces of the puzzle. Her book glosses over our constant work to find new ways to foster dialogue when traditional paths were blocked. My team and I spent the vast majority of our time talking to and listening to people — not just in schools or big public meetings, but at the grocery store, in small roundtables, and at local hang-outs. In these intimate discussions, we heard and felt support and enthusiasm for change. Also, while some of the changes we made will take years to bear fruit, the impressive progress we made is undeniable.

For her to suggest that the jury is still out on our impact is troubling.

Is there a way to organize families — the parents and the children who do want choice and opportunity and change — and leverage that against some of the loudest protestors?

My experience is that change happens one conversation at a time, one classroom at a time, and one school at a time. When the cameras are off, conversations with Newarkers are encouraging; families are demanding excellence and the community is highly engaged. This is a tremendous, untapped power that is very difficult to mobilize. Families in poor communities are focused on getting their students into the best school possible and attending to the economic hardship they are facing. Community members who dare to voice support for change are targets of intimidating phone calls, threatening home visits, and public bullying by power brokers who benefit from an indefensible the status quo. Ugly politics inject money to pay for organizers and ad campaigns that intentionally spread misinformation and fuel mistrust — and focus on trying to discredit the leader. Growing the charter sector means laying off Newarkers and shrinking the traditional system which has clear and emotional effects in the community even when there is a strong demand for them.

I think these facts can be overcome but we have to be willing to support the boldest leaders in communities like Newark, and to keep the voices of families, not power brokers, front and center. We also need to confront the basic truth that politics and reform are inextricably entwined. The key will be figuring out how to rally people around the cause rather than undermining those who are speaking hard truths. We must hold up those trying to change dysfunctional practices that are good for adults but bad for kids.

What’s your assessment, after years of leading the charge: Can struggling urban school districts like Newark’s be truly turned into excellent school systems? If so, what does it take to make that happen? If not, why not?

I’ve been in education reform for over 20 years and one thing that is striking to me: you can visit two classrooms, literally down the hall from one another, and see students mastering vastly different material. Schools in the same neighborhood serving similar students, sometimes on the same block, often achieve radically different results. And while it is undeniable that students and families wrestling with the crippling effects of poverty face unthinkable challenges in school, there are students, teachers and schools all over this country beating the odds. If excellence can occur for one student, all of the students in one teacher’s classroom, or young people in one school, it can and must happen for all kids at scale.

Research shows and my personal experience confirms great schools that attain consistently good results in high-poverty neighborhoods have similar ingredients. These schools always have an exemplary leader at the helm who is coached by a supervisor who is also a transformational leader. They have the freedom to pick and retain game-changing teachers and to align their budget with a clear theory of change. Their money and time isn’t tied up in bureaucratic red tape. Families are partners, even if they are struggling economically, and are enthusiastic about dropping off their student. Students spend more time at school and educators spend more time collaborating. Adults attend to students social and emotional need as well as to academic rigor.

If we can create systems where these conditions for success are present at scale, we can deliver on the promise of our students.

What is your biggest regret and the thing you will look back on with the most pride from your time in Newark?

I will be the first to say that school reformers – myself included – can continue to improve the quality and cultural competence with which we communicate. But, I lose sleep worrying that the well-orchestrated drama around school reform in Newark is perpetuating the wrong lessons. These efforts slow down change and young people who deserve better, now, are hurt the most.

Today, we live in a tale of two Americas: one in which people of means are prepared for a 21st century economy and another in which young people — the vast majority of whom are poor, black and Hispanic — are trapped in failed systems because the politics of change are so hard. We all suffer the consequences, not only in lost lives and higher prison rates but in other ways, like a stunning lack of diversity in board rooms, higher education institutions, corporations, nonprofits, and school reform organizations.

This isn’t just about school reform but the future of our country.

Photo by Getty Images

A version of this article appears on 74 Million.

It’s ‘Back to School’ Time, but Punitive Discipline May Be Driving Some Students Away

By Cami Anderson

It’s the time of year when we all hear a lot about kids going back to school. It is generally a time of great relief for lots of parents, excitement for educators looking to start fresh, and joy for kids who were bored over the summer.

But, having spent over two decades trying to close opportunity gaps for our most vulnerable students, I am literally pained wondering how many public school students we lost over the summer. Thousands of K-12 students across the country are attending a different school this year than they did last year — and almost 1 in 4 students in low-income urban and rural school systems. And there are many who haven’t come back to school at all.

In Newark and in New York City’s alternative District 79, where I served as superintendent, every year after the first week we tried to track down each and every student who hadn’t come back, or was sporadically attending school in the first month. One pattern was hard to deny: A majority of students who didn’t come back or who were not attending regularly had gotten into trouble in school, and were likely victims of extremely biased school discipline practices. Many of them — the ones most at risk of dropping out — had attended multiple schools in multiple years.

​This sort of educational “mobility” has serious costs for kids, particularly poor kids. Students growing up with significant risk factors face long odds of staying in school and graduating, and research shows that kids do better when they form deep bonds with staff and engage in familiar rituals. It’s critical for students to experience trust, stability, and predictability — which is why there is a strong correlation between student mobility and dropping out. Even when we tell ourselves that giving students a “fresh start” is good for them (though, obviously, being stuck in a failing school leads to worse long-term outcomes than moving), statistically, that often isn’t the case.

​Mobility has a lot of causes, and the reasons are notoriously hard to track. Some are beyond the power of schools to control. Poor families move more often than their wealthy peers. Families in the 21st century are increasingly complex, with kids living in shared custody, foster care, and/or kinship with adults zoned for different schools. Families with relatives overseas visit for long stretches over the summer and come back when they can afford to, not necessarily in alignment with the school calendar.

​But here’s an uncomfortable truth: A lot of kids who aren’t in the same school this year as they were last year (or, worse, aren’t in school at all) are gone because their old schools kicked them out or pushed them out, often as a result of discipline issues.

​Overly punitive discipline policies have turned school into the first place where many black kids are systematically punished for the color of their skin. Black students are 3½ times as likely to be suspended from school as their white peers — often for the same behaviors other students get away with — and account for half of school-based arrests despite making up only 16 percent of public school enrollment. Students with disabilities and those who identify as LGBTQ are also disproportionately suspended.

​Suspensions cost students thousands of hours of learning every year, often derailing their academic and economic futures. Students who have been suspended even once are three times as likely to be incarcerated later — generally, the first step toward a lifetime stuck in the revolving door of a dehumanizing criminal justice system. This is where the shameful school-to-prison pipeline starts.

​It’s time for educators and education leaders to shine a light on this long-ignored problem and start working to find solutions.

​The good news is that some schools are already pioneering new, innovative practices, rooted in research, that point the way forward. Trainings can help educators understand and manage their unconscious biases. Teachers can help students learn social and emotional skills, like self-management and conflict de-escalation, just like any academic subject. Schools can support students to become leaders and develop healthy identities and relationships. Superintendents and principals can focus on hiring and retaining staff with the mindset and skills to build strong, inclusive classroom cultures. And they can introduce alternatives to suspensions, like restorative circles and in-classroom interventions, that hold students accountable for their behavior without shutting them out from school.

​Also, some systems are becoming much more aggressive about pulling kids back to school, measuring mobility, and connecting with families. High-performing district and charter schools across the country are, literally, going door-to-door to make sure all students are in school and to gather firsthand feedback about how to stop conditions that made students stop coming. Leaders who conduct outreach and have the courage to really listen will find too many families and students give detailed descriptions of being encouraged not to come back to school, being sent home regularly, or flat-out told they are not welcome.

​Our most vulnerable students have to overcome enormous educational obstacles before they even get to school. The last thing we should be doing is slamming the door in their faces once they arrive — or, worse, creating conditions that make it hard, if not impossible, to come back. The relationship among school mobility, biased discipline, and the loss of too many young people is an overlooked problem — and one that we can, and should, fix.

​Cami Anderson, superintendent of Newark Public Schools from 2011 to 2015 and superintendent of alternative high schools in New York City (including the suspension centers and the schools on Rikers Island) from 2006 to 2015, is the founder of the Discipline Revolution Project, a coalition of education leaders working to find new approaches to school discipline.

A version of this article appears on 74 Million.

Disparate School Discipline, the ‘Dear Colleague’ Letter, and Civil Rights — 5 Key Points That Get Lost in All the Noise

By Cami Anderson

Last week, we saw national headlines about two seemingly disparate events: the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and the crescendo of a national debate about whether Education Secretary Betsy DeVos should rescind Obama-era guidance about school discipline. These two milestones have more in common than many people think.

​For those not following the debate about student discipline closely, in 2011, the Council of State Governments published a methodical and rigorous study of student-level data from around the country. The study, Breaking Schools’ Rules, found that black students, particularly African-American boys, are disproportionately suspended and excluded from school, compared with their peers. Subsequent research around that time, including data from the federal Civil Rights Data Collection, found that students with disabilities are also disproportionately punished, compared with their peers. Other studies in the past five years have pointed out that LGBTQQ — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning — students face similarly disparate discipline.

​In response to this growing body of evidence, in 2014, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance to inform educators that federal laws prohibit discriminatory discipline practices and that the Office for Civil Rights could investigate districts and schools that are out of compliance with those legal requirements.

​Many advocates and educators, like me — at the time, I was the superintendent in Newark — felt the letter was a commonsense, welcome light shined in dark corners, and a rallying cry for collective action.

​Surprisingly (to me at least), the guidance has become a passionate cause for right-leaning think tanks and some politicians. Their arguments take many forms. Some believe the disproportionate data are explained by life circumstances rather than bias. Some say the advocacy is a classic case of federal overreach, tantamount to Washington telling teachers what to do. Some have tried to make the case that the guidance spurred “discipline reform” that has made schools more chaotic and less safe.

​As with many issues in our current discourse, key points that we should be talking about have gotten lost in an ideological food fight.

​Here are five points for discussion:

​The facts are the facts. An independent report issued by the objective and bipartisan General Accounting Office just last week affirmed the obvious: Exclusionary student discipline affects black students far more than their white peers. As one example, African-American students make up 55 percent of school-based arrests even as they comprise only 16 percent of the student population (and 0 percent of the perpetrators of mass school shootings). Another example: Recent studies show that black boys are far more likely to receive negative teacher attention than their peers (often for the same behaviors in kindergarten), and African-American girls are thought to be “less innocent” than their white peers. And while wonky types like to argue about whether the data are causal or correlative, being in serious trouble in school means a substantially increased likelihood you will be involved with the justice system for the rest of your life. Adult biases are at play, and they push kids into a criminal justice system where the same biases can end their life.

The law is the law. King died four years after one of his signature accomplishments: passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination and segregation on the basis of race, religion, national origin, or gender in the workplace, schools, public accommodations, and federally assisted programs. Title VI of that act went on to further clarify that no person shall, on the grounds of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be otherwise subjected to discrimination under any program receiving federal financial assistance. Federal guidance or not, “Dear Colleague” letter or not, the federal government has a legal mandate to uphold the law. If those who oppose the guidance — which simply gave further information about how this relates to school discipline — wish to relitigate the Civil Rights Act, they should be bold enough to say this is their intention.

Yes, support for schools and building capacity matters. One thing about which some right-leaning think tank leaders and I can agree: We must replace antiquated practices with new ones. We can’t simply be against suspensions and expulsions; we have to be for a new set of policies and practices — and we have to invest in training, support, and coaching for teachers, student support staff, school safety agents, administrators, families, and organizations that work alongside schools. Policy alone is not the answer, but it is certainly an important piece of the puzzle. Many conservative politicians and thought leaders seem to abandon their belief in holding schools and educators accountable for results when it comes to disproportionality in school discipline data.

Blame won’t solve the problem. It is tempting for district schools to suggest charter schools are the biggest offenders of disproportionate discipline — and for charter schools to say districts are incapable of solving problems. It’s easy for teachers to say principals are the problem, principals to say teachers are the problem, schools to say families are the problem, or families to say other families are the problem. Where we see progress on this issue, we see people working together to build the skill and will of all the adults in a community to prevent incidents in the first place and to respond to children in developmentally appropriate ways when they do occur.

What matters most: upholding students’ civil rights. What does the anniversary of King’s murder have to do with the current debate about school discipline? The very law that he and so many others fought to enact is about establishing the federal government’s role in ensuring that citizens are free from discrimination when accessing public institutions. From an educational standpoint, this means protecting students’ civil rights. The federal government is responsible, by Constitution and law, for ensuring that the societal inequities that exist because of race, class, ableism, and sexual identity are not cemented in schools.

King implored us all to act with the “fierce urgency of now” when it comes to realizing a day when all citizens have equal rights. Let’s keep the focus first on supporting schools and families to ensure that all young people, not just those we perceive to be compliant, thrive and excel. We need to embrace an approach that builds the capacity of schools to support the healthy identity of every student — and holds them accountable for creating bias-free environments in accordance with civil rights laws.

Cami Anderson And Zuckerberg, The Unlikely Duo Behind Newark Schools’ Revitalization

How the chief of Newark’s troubled schools is spending Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million.

Since arriving in Newark, Anderson hasn’t shied away from bold moves. PHOTOS BY JEFF MERMELSTEIN

BY ANYA KAMENETZ
Even though it’s not in my nature, you have to just, like, take a minute, because it’s a big deal.” We’re in Cami Anderson’s private office. The Newark, New Jersey, school superintendent has just held a joint press conference with the head of the teachers’ union to announce a historic contract. Half of a $100 million donation made by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to the Newark Public School system in 2010 will sweeten a new agreement with teachers, who have been working without a contract for two and a half years. There will be a new performance-evaluation system, incorporating peer review, as well as bonuses for teachers who opt out of the old seniority rules–carrots alongside sticks. The agreement is already being hailed nationwide as groundbreaking.

Education is an opportunity to make good on the promise of America, to stop being a country where race and poverty determine your life outcomes.

Anderson–41, tall, broad-shouldered, blue-eyed–sits back in her chair, pulling her hair into a ponytail. The cinder-block walls and dead-fish fluorescent lighting contribute to the vibe of a locker room after a big win. The challenge in Newark is intense: Nearly half the students drop out, and 90% of graduates who do go to college need remedial classes. For Anderson, who counts among her supporters Democratic Newark mayor Cory Booker and Republican New Jersey governor Chris Christie, the scrutiny is equally intense; Booker has announced a Senate run, and Christie is widely expected to run for President, with both likely to tout her achievements on the campaign trail. As Joel Klein, Anderson’s boss when he was chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, says, “Nobody gives you $100 million and says, ‘Have a happy life.’”

When Anderson was offered the job as Newark superintendent, she almost turned it down, wary of the national spotlight. “My female CEO friends had to do an intervention,” she says. “They sat me down and said, ‘Don’t be a girl. Take the mike.’” She’s shown little uncertainty since then. “I got into this because I feel like education is an opportunity to make good on the promise of America,” she says, “to stop being a country where race and poverty determine your life outcomes.” Wendy Kopp, who runs Teach for America, where Anderson started her career, says: “I don’t think a more perfectthere’s example of someone coming into a situation and operating on the highest of expectations–both for kids and for adults.” Booker calls Anderson “someone I’m in awe of.” Says Klein: “She literally takes your breath away.”

It’s morning, and I climb into the messy backseat of Anderson’s black Escalade, her official city ride. Her driver, Billy Jarrett, hands her a foil-wrapped egg sandwich, another in a long succession of foil-wrapped meals. She reaches back to shake my hand, but quickly; we’re running behind.

To watch Anderson at work is to witness an adroit professional bound by a creaking bureaucracy. At the Board of Education headquarters at 2 Cedar Street, an executive assistant, already sitting at her desk, will not lift a ringing phone from its cradle until the clock ticks over from 8:59 to 9:00. Anderson is often away at that hour, dedicating three mornings a week to observing teachers in the classroom and debriefing with principals. We are headed to two of her schools this morning. We listen as a kindergarten teacher reads to her pupils, then eavesdrop on a discussion in an all-boys middle-school civics class. Afterward, Anderson shares her moment-by-moment observations with the teachers’ principals, all with actionable feedback: Give young children–whom she calls “the little people”–positive examples of behavior, rather than telling them what not to do; push teens to ground their discussion in facts and evidence. These points tie directly into learning goals that principals and teachers are responsible for together.

Anderson grew up in a decidedly unconventional household in Manhattan Beach, California. Her mother, Sheila, worked in the foster care system for 32 years and opened their home to those who were hard to place, with a new member joining the family almost every year. Two were the children of American GIs and Vietnamese women. Many had special needs–one came to their home after a year of operations at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

One of Anderson’s key goals is keeping kids in school; about half of Newark’s students end up as dropouts now.

At its peak, the family had nine teenagers and operated a little like a kibbutz, with weekly meetings over fondue or popcorn, and an official rotation for each team of siblings to do laundry or cook dinner. Anderson was a long-distance swimmer and basketball player on the boys’ team, and she sang, danced, and acted. She was passionate about social justice even then. “At a very young age,” says her mother, “she understood that [her siblings] had a start in life that was different from hers.”

Anderson moved quickly after arriving in Newark in the summer of 2011. Within several months, she announced the closure of six low-performing, under-enrolled schools. She cut 120 jobs and replaced 17 principals. She added seats in pre-K and an early-college dual-enrollment program, and created eight “Renew” schools that have extra training for teachers, hiring bonuses for high-needs classes, more computers and Wi-Fi, and more access to social services such as nurses, social workers, and community mentoring.

She went to a brutal public meeting,” recalls Booker, “hundreds of people screaming and shouting and threatening. She showed remarkable courage.

She has already been tested. Parents’ groups have sued the mayor’s office seeking fuller disclosure of the arrangements behind the Zuckerberg money, springing in part from a deep streak of local resentment at the idea of outsiders–especially powerful, moneyed outsiders–imposing their own agenda. Even shrinking schools with abysmal test scores can be beloved neighborhood institutions. “She went to a brutal public meeting,” says Booker. “You have hundreds of people screaming and shouting and threatening you. She was able to stand in the saddle, present her vision and the plan, and do it in a way that showed a remarkable courage. And now the schools that people were yelling and screaming about–they’re extraordinary models of promise and hope.” 

Anderson visits her charges often. Here, she sits in at a graphics class in Malcolm X Shabazz High School.

Cami Anderson And Zuckerberg, The Unlikely Duo Behind Newark Schools’ Revitalization
How the chief of Newark’s troubled schools is spending Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million.

Since arriving in Newark, Anderson hasn’t shied away from bold moves. PHOTOS BY JEFF MERMELSTEIN
BY ANYA KAMENETZ
Even though it’s not in my nature, you have to just, like, take a minute, because it’s a big deal.” We’re in Cami Anderson’s private office. The Newark, New Jersey, school superintendent has just held a joint press conference with the head of the teachers’ union to announce a historic contract. Half of a $100 million donation made by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to the Newark Public School system in 2010 will sweeten a new agreement with teachers, who have been working without a contract for two and a half years. There will be a new performance-evaluation system, incorporating peer review, as well as bonuses for teachers who opt out of the old seniority rules–carrots alongside sticks. The agreement is already being hailed nationwide as groundbreaking.
Anderson–41, tall, broad-shouldered, blue-eyed–sits back in her chair, pulling her hair into a ponytail. The cinder-block walls and dead-fish fluorescent lighting contribute to the vibe of a locker room after a big win. The challenge in Newark is intense: Nearly half the students drop out, and 90% of graduates who do go to college need remedial classes. For Anderson, who counts among her supporters Democratic Newark mayor Cory Booker and Republican New Jersey governor Chris Christie, the scrutiny is equally intense; Booker has announced a Senate run, and Christie is widely expected to run for President, with both likely to tout her achievements on the campaign trail. As Joel Klein, Anderson’s boss when he was chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, says, “Nobody gives you $100 million and says, ‘Have a happy life.’”
When Anderson was offered the job as Newark superintendent, she almost turned it down, wary of the national spotlight. “My female CEO friends had to do an intervention,” she says. “They sat me down and said, ‘Don’t be a girl. Take the mike.’” She’s shown little uncertainty since then. “I got into this because I feel like education is an opportunity to make good on the promise of America,” she says, “to stop being a country where race and poverty determine your life outcomes.” Wendy Kopp, who runs Teach for America, where Anderson started her career, says: “I don’t think there’s a more perfect example of someone coming into a situation and operating on the highest of expectations–both for kids and for adults.” Booker calls Anderson “someone I’m in awe of.” Says Klein: “She literally takes your breath away.”

It’s morning, and I climb into the messy backseat of Anderson’s black Escalade, her official city ride. Her driver, Billy Jarrett, hands her a foil-wrapped egg sandwich, another in a long succession of foil-wrapped meals. She reaches back to shake my hand, but quickly; we’re running behind.

To watch Anderson at work is to witness an adroit professional bound by a creaking bureaucracy. At the Board of Education headquarters at 2 Cedar Street, an executive assistant, already sitting at her desk, will not lift a ringing phone from its cradle until the clock ticks over from 8:59 to 9:00. Anderson is often away at that hour, dedicating three mornings a week to observing teachers in the classroom and debriefing with principals. We are headed to two of her schools this morning. We listen as a kindergarten teacher reads to her pupils, then eavesdrop on a discussion in an all-boys middle-school civics class. Afterward, Anderson shares her moment-by-moment observations with the teachers’ principals, all with actionable feedback: Give young children–whom she calls “the little people”–positive examples of behavior, rather than telling them what not to do; push teens to ground their discussion in facts and evidence. These points tie directly into learning goals that principals and teachers are responsible for together.

Anderson grew up in a decidedly unconventional household in Manhattan Beach, California. Her mother, Sheila, worked in the foster care system for 32 years and opened their home to those who were hard to place, with a new member joining the family almost every year. Two were the children of American GIs and Vietnamese women. Many had special needs–one came to their home after a year of operations at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

Education is an opportunity to make good on the promise of America, to stop being a country where race and poverty determine your life outcomes.

One of Anderson’s key goals is keeping kids in school; about half of Newark’s students end up as dropouts now.
At its peak, the family had nine teenagers and operated a little like a kibbutz, with weekly meetings over fondue or popcorn, and an official rotation for each team of siblings to do laundry or cook dinner. Anderson was a long-distance swimmer and basketball player on the boys’ team, and she sang, danced, and acted. She was passionate about social justice even then. “At a very young age,” says her mother, “she understood that [her siblings] had a start in life that was different from hers.”

Anderson moved quickly after arriving in Newark in the summer of 2011. Within several months, she announced the closure of six low-performing, under-enrolled schools. She cut 120 jobs and replaced 17 principals. She added seats in pre-K and an early-college dual-enrollment program, and created eight “Renew” schools that have extra training for teachers, hiring bonuses for high-needs classes, more computers and Wi-Fi, and more access to social services such as nurses, social workers, and community mentoring.

She went to a brutal public meeting,” recalls Booker, “hundreds of people screaming and shouting and threatening. She showed remarkable courage.
She has already been tested. Parents’ groups have sued the mayor’s office seeking fuller disclosure of the arrangements behind the Zuckerberg money, springing in part from a deep streak of local resentment at the idea of outsiders–especially powerful, moneyed outsiders–imposing their own agenda. Even shrinking schools with abysmal test scores can be beloved neighborhood institutions. “She went to a brutal public meeting,” says Booker. “You have hundreds of people screaming and shouting and threatening you. She was able to stand in the saddle, present her vision and the plan, and do it in a way that showed a remarkable courage. And now the schools that people were yelling and screaming about–they’re extraordinary models of promise and hope.”
One evening I meet Anderson at a cavernous sports bar near the Newark train station. We’re joined by her partner, Jared Robinson, and their blue-eyed, curly-haired 3-year-old son, Sampson. She pulls out a red plastic binder with a set of spreadsheets outlining her six “pillars,” or priorities: students, teachers, school leaders, her administrative team, charter schools and other outside options, and families and stakeholders. Each pillar is aligned with specific objectives to be accomplished by July 30. At the end of every week, she reviews what she’s done, looks ahead, and makes a to-do list. Then she considers her priorities for the year and makes a second list–the steps she would take to achieve her long-term goals if she had nothing urgent on her plate. Finally she adds the second list to the first and divides the whole into three piles: do it, delegate it, or shelve it.

I see a flash of the toughness I’ve heard about when I float a remark from Klein, now the director of News Corp.’s education unit, that the ample spending in Newark schools–$23,000 per student, among the highest in the nation–removes an “easy excuse” for poor performance. “That’s a little shitty of my good friend Joel to say. That would be a fair assessment if we didn’t have LIFO,” she says, referring to “last in, first out,” the seniority rule. “Okay, I’m going to give you a pile of money, Joel, to run your shop. If you want to downsize from 50 to 25 and take that money and invest it in technology or whatever, you will have the 25 most senior people, regardless of quality. Now turn around your company.”

This January, Anderson was invited to the annual meeting of the William Morris Endeavor talent agency, where 450 clients and execs gathered for a mini-TED conference, with speakers that included Karl Rove, Al Gore, and Zappos’s Tony Hsieh. Anderson spoke about education as a civil right, contrasting the standard visions of innovation and transformation with the reality of the schools in her city, which still use purple mimeograph machines from the 1960s. She was mobbed as she got off the stage, and for the rest of the weekend too. The spotlight beckons.

Newark Is Betting on a Wave of New Principals

By WINNIE HU

NEWARK — There is Sonn Sam, a Rhode Island transplant who could be mistaken for one of the students at his alternative high school, with his shaven head, sneakers and tattooed left arm.

Sonn Sam, 30, runs Newark Leadership Academy high school.
Credit:Matt Rainey for The New York Times

There is Chaleeta Barnes, who was promoted after just three years as a math coach at the Newark elementary school where her mother once taught.

And there is Raymond Peterson, the founding principal of Bard High School Early College in Manhattan, who came out of retirement to start a similar school in Newark.

These are some of the 17 new principals — 11 of them under age 40, 7 from outside Newark — recruited this year to run nearly a quarter of the city’s schools. They were hired by Cami Anderson, the new schools superintendent, as part of an ambitious plan to rebuild the 39,000-student district, which has long been crippled by low achievement and high dropout rates, but now is flush with up to $200 million from prominent donors, including Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook.

“I believe a strong principal is the key to almost everything,” Ms. Anderson said in an interview. “Where you have great performance, you have great principals, period, full stop. Where you have low performance, you have struggling principals. It’s not that complicated.”

Ms. Anderson, 40, who was appointed in May, said that before she came, Newark chose principals through an informal and somewhat arbitrary process, based largely on recommendations from school employees, parents and political leaders. She quickly ousted six principals she deemed ineffective, then used some of the donor money to set up a search committee to replace them and to fill seven vacancies and four positions at new high schools. Ms. Anderson has also broken from district policy to give all principals more autonomy to hire staff, and teamed up with a nonprofit group, New Leaders for New Schools, to develop what she called an “emerging leaders program.”

All of which has led to complaints from some teachers, parents and community leaders.

“She’s taking a real dramatic approach and bringing in younger leaders with little or no experience,” said Alturrick Kenney, a public affairs consultant who is a member of the city’s school advisory board. “That’s a great thing for their careers, but it could be a detriment for the district. It’s like with any basketball team: you bring in a group of rookies, and they will typically be outperformed by the veterans.”

Others said that the hiring process dragged on too long, leaving some schools paralyzed until shortly before classes began on Sept. 6, or that the emphasis on principals might skirt a larger issue: teaching. “It’s very easy to blame the sinking of the Titanic on the captain, but I would think the crew had something to do with it, too,” said Joseph Del Grosso, president of the Newark Teachers Union.

To Ms. Anderson, though, the two are intrinsically linked. “We carefully selected principals with the skill and will to drive teacher quality,” she said.

Her search committee, which included former principals and teachers, recruited and screened about 90 candidates, two-thirds of whom were brought in for four-and-a-half-hour interviews in which they critiqued videotaped lessons, discussed case studies and wrote essays on the spot.

“There was no way you could blow through this interview,” recalled Lynn Irby Jackson, the new principal of Arts High School, who had worked in the system for 19 years, including as an elementary school principal. “You needed to bring your A game.”

District officials said the new process weeded out candidates who looked better on paper than in person, and allowed less traditional ones to shine. Among those who made the cut were a charter school leader with a M.B.A., a cofounder of a nonprofit group working to end youth violence and an assistant principal of alternative schools and programs in New York. Their salaries range from $103,456 to $139,768, and the district has assembled a team of seasoned administrators to help train, monitor and evaluate them.

“They have a gleam in their eye, and they’re ready to go work,” Leonard P. Pugliese, president of the 325-member City Association of Supervisors and Administrators union, said of the new recruits. “I’m impressed with them.”

Ms. Barnes, the 31-year-old former math coach now running Dayton Street Elementary School, ticked off her plans last week as she walked down hallways lined with college flags. She is converting empty classrooms into a staff lounge and aerobics room to lift morale, and freeing teachers from longstanding requirements that classroom walls display number lines, word walls and academic standards.

When a math teacher asked what Ms. Barnes wanted on the walls, she told her: “I want what you want.” The teacher was speechless. “I want the staff to start thinking for themselves and what’s best for their students,” Ms. Barnes said. “And not us thinking for them.”

For students, she has been rewarding good behavior by handing out raffle tickets for an in-class movie with popcorn. Outside the library, she chided a line of rowdy first graders. “I wish I had been able to give out tickets,” she said. “We’ll try again next time.”

Dr. Sam, 30, grew up in a tough section of Providence, R.I., and said he had turned his life around after the birth of his oldest daughter, who is now 9. He came to Newark in May to help start Newark Leadership Academy high school, after a challenging year in which his mother died from cancer and he was criticized for overstating on his résumé the improvement in math scores at a previous school where he had been principal; he said that the résumé was based on incorrect data he had received from a school employee, and that he had corrected it.

The other morning, Dr. Sam sat on the gym floor with students who, one by one, raised hands to share their fears about school: not being smart enough, not having friends, not succeeding. Then he shared his own.

“I was a C and D student,” Dr. Sam, who earned his Ph.D. in educational leadership, said. “At one point in my life, I was afraid of what I could be. If I could do it, any of you can do it too.”

Afterward, in an office where books overflowed from two plastic tubs near a hand-carved African drum that he bangs on to relieve stress, Dr. Sam dialed into a district conference call, using his cellphone because the office line was not yet hooked up. Attendance, he reported, hovered around 70 percent on the third day — respectable for a population of students he described as “over age and undercredit.”

He hung up and sent e-mails to teachers that he wanted to interview for the last two openings on his staff of 14. Soon he headed downstairs to rejoin the students in the gym, only to find one on a cellphone in the hall.

“My man, how’s it going?” he said casually.

The student said he had been calling his mother to check on a relative.

“Let me tell you, brother, that is a very fair and justified phone call,” Dr. Sam replied. “Next time, just let us know.”

Later, the principal conceded that the student could have been chatting with his girlfriend. “For me, it’s a small victory, the fact that we had a positive interaction,” he said. “A lot of times, they just want to be heard.”

Dr. Sam, who spent his own high school years excelling outside of class in football, drama and break dancing, said he wanted to make sure there were options for his students, most of whom had dropped out of or struggled in traditional schools. He called them together. He pledged to them that every one would leave school this time with a diploma in hand.

“I know coming to a new community and just saying ‘Kumbaya,’ you’re not going to have trust,” he told them. “It’s about action. When I say I’ve got your back, I need you to hold me accountable.”

One junior, Tony Chambers, 20, said Dr. Sam’s life story had made an impression. “I never heard of someone with a C average making it,” he said.

Sonn Sam, center, came to Newark Leadership Academy from Rhode Island.

Credit: Matt Rainey for The New York Times
A version of this article appears in print on September 16, 2011, on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Troubled District’s Bet: Wave of New Principals.

Bloomberg EDU on Bloomberg Radio

Cami Anderson, superintendent of Newark public schools, talks about the challenge of reforming the low-performing district.

Sam Stone, executive director of the Civics Education Initiative and Donna Phillips, a social studies teacher and civics education researcher, discuss proposed legislation requiring high school seniors to pass a test on U.S. history and civics. Jane Williams hosts Bloomberg Radio’s “Bloomberg EDU.”

NJTV, Newark Schools Chief Makes Time’s 100 List

Newark’s Schools Superintendent Cami Anderson has made headlines implementing programs to transform a troubled school district. Her shake-up of Newark’s public school system has earned her a place in Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Anderson sat down with Managing Editor Mike Schneider to talk about the recognition and her goals for Newark’s public schools.

Title IX Chat moderated by Alison Desir, July 2017

On June 23, 1972, Title IX was created. 45 years later, we have seen the ways in which the law has been bent and broken. Join founder Run4AllWomen Alison Desir and a panel of industry experts for a 5K run and after to discuss the history of Title IX—it’s intended and unintended consequences and the way it has transformed the world of sports.