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.
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 TimesA 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.