By Cami Anderson
Anyone who has attempted reform work knows that there is a vast difference between community engagement and local politics. This critical nuance is completely missed in Dale Rusakoff’s assessment of the progress made, and still being made, in the quest to improve Newark Public Schools in The Prize. While the book is part of an importation conversation about equity and education, it simplifies matters for the sake of a dramatic narrative about school reform and attempts to villainize those working to fix inherently broken systems.
When I arrived in Newark five years ago as superintendent, less than 30 percent of the student body was reading and doing math at grade level. Ineffective teachers received job security and high salaries while more impactful teachers with less seniority, were ignored or laid off as the district lost students to a growing charter sector. Administrators abused power and funds. Graduation rates were terrible. Buildings were crumbling, enrollment was done through pen-and-paper transactions, transportation options were limited, and most schools were not Internet-wired. With a $1B budget, Newark Public Schools was the largest local industry in a town where the average income is about $17K. Politicians and local powerbrokers coveted contracts, grants, and jobs that weren’t’t delivering results for kids. Families were on waiting lists for charter schools and polls showed the community was deeply dissatisfied.
Despite these stark realities, our efforts to meet this mandate for change evoked defensiveness, intimidation, and worse. Groups and leaders that should have been allies resisted anything that would upset the status quo because they benefitted from trading favors. Education reformers worked against each other to advance competing priorities rather than banding together around a unified theory of change to spur innovation and ensure equity. Unions fought to keep ineffective staff members, who in some instances verbally or physically abused students, and formed alliances with public officials they help elect. Ugly politics injected money to pay for organizers and ad campaigns that spread misinformation and fueled mistrust. Community members who dared to voice support were targets of intimidating phone calls, threatening home visits, and public bullying.
In the face of these challenges, we made substantial progress. Newark’s lowest performing schools improved dramatically. We recruited transformational school leaders who worked with families to completely reimagine their school, added time for students to learn and adults to collaborate, and invested millions to upgrade facilities and technology. The majority of highly effective teachers were retained and we exited low performers because of our new and nationally-recognized labor contract. A restorative justice approach helped adults better reach struggling young people and reduced suspension rates. We created unprecedented partnerships with the charter sector to bring transparency to how we measured progress and equity to enrollment. Test scores improved. Enrollment increased thanks to One Newark, a groundbreaking approach to working with charters to transform an entire system. Graduation rates rose by 12 percent.
Despite these clear successes, The Prize insinuates that the jury is still out on whether we had an impact. Some changes will take years to fully materialize. But others couldn’t be clearer. To the students who avoided suspension and the devastating repercussions of juvenile detention thanks to our social justice programs, it’s the difference between two very different futures. To the students who graduated instead of dropping out, it now means that college is a possibility.
Engaging families is different than managing politics. The forces for status quo are currently better at politics than those of us who believe we must deliver different outcomes for kids. The Prize trivializes and ignores our persistent, though perhaps imperfect, efforts to find new and creative channels for dialogue when traditional paths were blocked. My team and I spent the vast majority of our time talking to and listening to people in schools, at big public meetings, and also 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.
A version of this article appeared on The Hill