Newark’s Baraka to launch “community schools” in South Ward–with Cerf’s blessing

Baraka meets with Christie. shortly after the mayor's election.
Baraka meets with Christie. shortly after the mayor’s election.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and Christopher Cerf, the state-appointed superintendent of the city schools,  are soon expected to launch a “community schools initiative” that would, if successful, create a network of up to 10 schools that offer health and other services as well as enhanced educational programs.  The initiative, aimed primarily at the city’s impoverished South Ward, could be announced as early as next week.

The plan is based on the “global village” plan Baraka pursued with support from educators at New York University while he was principal of Newark’s Central High School. A new version of the proposal was recently produced by Lauren Wells, the mayor’s chief academic officer, who also worked with Baraka while he was at Central.

Thousands of students at City Hall last May when protesters almost shut the city--and part of the state--down.
Thousands of students at City Hall last May when protesters almost shut the city–and part of the state–down.

In her proposal, dated in September, Wells wrote that a city hall-based office of comprehensive community education (OCCE) “seeks to launch and support 10 full-service community schools.

“OCCE will identify the 10 community schools through competitive request for proposals process to all eligible district schools demonstrating a substantive interest and readiness to implement evidence-based approaches to creating community schools.”

She described community schools as a model that “organizes the resources of the community to support students’ educational success, build stronger families, and improve communities.”

Wells said funding for the project could come from existing sources.

Jose Leonardo, vice president of Newark Students Union. speaks to crowd at City Hall. He was named to the Newark Educational Success Board.
Jose Leonardo, vice president of Newark Students Union. speaks to crowd at City Hall. He was named to the Newark Educational Success Board.

Baraka’s embrace of community schools is not new. He ran for mayor in 2014 on a platform based on a comprehensive community schools plan that would replace the “reforms” imposed by the state administration of the city schools during its 20 years of managing New Jersey’s largest school district.

What is new is the cooperation provided by Cerf who, until recently, was viewed with as much hostility and suspicion by the mayor’s office as was Cerf’s predecessor, Cami Anderson, whom Cerf appointed. What also is new is the concentration on Baraka’s home ward, the South Ward.

Lauren Wells, chief academic officer for the Newark mayor's office.
Lauren Wells, chief academic officer for the Newark mayor’s office.

Wells’ plan–and a similarly worded blog by Baraka published last week by The Hechinger Report–does not mention Cerf’s cooperation or the South Ward as the target for the initiative. However, last month Cerf called an unexpected meeting of principals of South Ward schools to describe a so-called “South Ward” project.

According to participants in the meeting, Cerf said he would support any school whose administrators wanted to apply to become a community school under Baraka’s plan. Similar meetings were not held in other wards.

“Cerf made it clear this initiative would be for the South Ward alone,” said one school administrator from the ward who asked to remain anonymous.

In addition, administrators at 2 Cedar Street, the headquarters of the state-operated Newark public schools, said there has been wide discussion of the plan. One of the administrators, who also requested anonymity, said:

“We are talking about what amounts to a semi-autonomous school district inside the South Ward,” the administrator said. “It would have its own version of a universal enrollment plan and its own coordinating board. It would, in effect, be part of the school system run in cooperation with the mayor’s office.”

In her proposal, Wells envisions a “partnership with (the) Newark public schools” in which the mayor’s office “will work with the superintendent of the Newark public schools to ensure that the objectives and goals of the community schools initiative are aligned with the broader vision of success for public schools throughout the district.”

One of the most extraordinary elements of the Wells’ proposal is the lack of any mention whatsoever of state control of the city schools–something that is expected to remain at least for another year, probably longer. A stranger reading the report would have no clue that the system is run by the state and that state control has been a major controversy in the city for two decades. It’s as if state control never existed.

Former Mayor Cory Booker, Cerf, and Anderson--architects of the privatization of many Newark schools.
Former Mayor Cory Booker, Cerf, and Anderson–architects of the privatization of many Newark schools.

The South Ward has been a special target for all manner of educational reform in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons. It is an especially poor section of the city where the schools have produced disappointing student performance results. Under Anderson, privately operated but publicly funded charter schools have flourished in the area–and the planned addition of five new charter is concentrated in the section.

Under what Cerf’s subordinates call the “South Ward project,” charter schools would continue and grow–including a planned effort by the so-called Brick Academy Schools,  Avon and Peshine, to convert from traditional public schools to charter schools under a provision of the law allowing parents and teachers to vote for a change to private operation. The “Brick” schools, run by Dominique Lee, a close associate of Anderson and product of Teach For America, operated as virtual charter schools under the same “memorandum of understanding” that guided the charters.

Although Baraka’s plan has not been formally launched, Cerf’s presentation to the South Ward principals has created opposition within the city school administration.

“What you’re talking about here is a further fracturing of the city school system into little fiefdoms,” said one administrator. “It will prevent a citywide, comprehensive reform effort aimed at improving all schools.”

How the initiative will play among parent groups is unclear. When Baraka led the opposition to state control during his mayoral election campaign–his opponent, Shavar Jeffries, was both a supporter of charters and of Cami Anderson–he drew extensive support from community, student, and parent groups.

However, since June, when Baraka and Gov. Chris Christie reached a deal that the political leaders said would eventually bring a return of local control, Baraka has become all but silent about state control. He has said virtually nothing critical about Cerf and the expansion plans of charter schools.

A committee that was part of the deal–the so-called “Newark Educational Success Board”–was supposed to find a “road map” to local control but has done little beyond silencing a number of state critics who were appointed to it. The activities of the Newark Student Union which, last May, threatened to create a national embarrassment for Christie, have all but ended.

Two efforts by protesters to organize “massive” rallies– backed by the students and the Newark Teachers Union–one aimed at charter schools and the other planned for a school board meeting–fizzled, showing the weakness of the anti-state movement without Baraka’s strong voice at its helm.

One prominent community leader who was part of the anti-state movement when it was powerful has raised questions about  Baraka and Cerf’s plan. Sharon Smith, leader of PULSE-NJ, said, “While we are grateful that both the mayor and the superintendent have recognized the damage done to the South Ward schools, we are also disappointed that the voice of parents has not been heard.”

Her sentiments were echoed by a central office school administrator who expressed concern about Baraka’s failure to involve community organizations.

“It just looks like more top-down efforts at ‘reform’ without the participation of the community,” the administrator said.




  1. What is the Baraka/Cerf plan for Special Needs students at Camden Elementary?

  2. Why do I get the feeling he’s found a way to cash in and make his own charter school system? If you can’t beat them, join them in making money?

  3. My post outlines what I see can be significant dangers to unthinking pursuit of the Community Schools model. The reformers have already laid a trap, and once everyone accepts that community and online programs can replace physical schools, we will no longer have bricks and mortar public schools. I have extensive links in the post. It’s all part of this long game plan, sadly.

  4. Mr Braun,
    In this week before Thanksgiving, I’d like to tell you that thanks to your blog I’m more informed, more articulate, and more involved.

    I hope lots of your readers will share a quick Thank You this week. We’re grateful for your commitment and talent.

    Bob Braun: I am grateful to you and others who believe I have something to add to the conversation. And for your kind words.

    1. Here, here. I agree. Thank You, Bob for a platform on which Newark Educators, New Jersey Educators, parents and students could dialogue, debate and exercise democracy as it was intended.

  5. Bob and readers – Did you watch Baraka on Democracy Now! today?

    What’s your take on that?

    1. I didn’t see him in Democracy Now, but I did see him on “Due Process” last week. I don’t understand his gambit. He suggested that returning the district to local control is Christie’s last chance at gubernatorial glory– of achieving a cornerstone to mark his achievement(s) as Governor. It was as though Baraka was saying he was leveraging the governor’s vain pursuits of power in a conflict of interest that would compel the governor to relinquish control and reinstate the board.

      Bob Braun: Curiouser and curiouser.

  6. Thank you Alison McDowell as I found your post, complete with links, illuminating on why a Cerf would be interested in a community schools initiative and why he is open to launching it in the South Ward. While Baraka may be motivated by trying to help those who live in the South Ward, an area he knows well and is invested in, it seems clear that for Cerf such a project would make him look good and appear open to saving communities, while all the while this initiative is fragmenting the NPS District and, if Alison is correct (and unfortunately I fear that she is), weakening the community rather than strengthening it. When people see a bleak future of urban districts with a number of well-funded and well-resourced charter schools and all the “riff-raff” (i.e. special ed and ESL students and those children living in the most abject poverty) left behind in crumbling public schools, maybe they need to re-imagine this dystopian scenario as one with, yes, those charter schools, run by for-profit corporations or “do-gooder” philanthropists, and everyone else in online virtual schools with no contact with nurturing, inspiring human teachers. If you read Alison’s post about what is going on and being planned for Philadelphia, you get a possible idea about where Cerf might be leading Newark. In other words, never say it couldn’t get any worse, because they’ll go right ahead and find a way to make it worse – guaranteed!

    1. Please tell everyone. It is hard to raise concerns, when so many are looking for a “feel good” story. But if we pursue Community Schools without understanding and appreciating the dangerous trap that has been laid for us by corporate education reformers, we risk everything. The only thing we can do is to shine a light on their true intentions. Show people the end game that the “reformers” envision; call them on it; and say we will not accept the future they have planned for our children and grand children.

  7. P.S. Hear, hear to booklady’s appreciation of the inimitable Bob Braun…he is definitely a bright spot in the gloomy realty that is Newark these days…

  8. […] Newark’s Baraka to launch “community schools” in South Ward­–with Cerf’s blessing Bob Braun’s Ledger – November 23, 2015 […]

  9. There appears to be more and more cooks in the kitchen stirring the educational soup in Newark. The problem with all this is that the people of Newark are not one of the cooks, they are simply ignored. What a shame that we live in a state where only people living in the suburbs are deemed worthy of running their own school system but the people of our major urban cities are not. How can this be happening in a democratic society?

    Bob Braun: Excellent point. Child of the 60’s that I am, I fantasize about urban political leaders leading marches down to Trenton to demand funding equity, desegregation, and an end to privatization of the public schools. Instead, we get “reforms” and “programs” that enrich their proponents literally or politically or both. People living in the suburbs enjoy true, not phony, choice because they can move out and a school system’s reputation can be ruined by real estate agents. The choice offered by the corporate “reformers” is a sucker’s game, but one that can reap benefits for the right politicians selling the right snake oil.

  10. Are you all hearing things about “pathways” lately. I feel the Community Schools push undergirds the blended learning model coming down the pike with the new ESEA. It will be tech driven. Competency Based Assessment is part of that and it is being driven by those financing student debt. Here is my take on what may be on the horizon. Curious if any of it jives with what is happening in Newark.

    A Troubling Scenario: CBE+Higher Ed+Industry+Student Debt
    Could this be the next phase of neoliberal education reform?
    Follow the money. Who stands to gain?

    1. Move to the idea of online credentialing. Call it standards-based skills mastery, etc. Get everyone on board with CBE.

    2. Break down old fashioned notion of “seat time.” Everything is student-centered and self paced. You don’t really need true distinctions between high school and community college and four year college and professional certifications. It’s all just one process of gathering up the “bits” of education required.

    3. Collecting badges is seamless and you just transition without any real breaks. If they get rid of physical school buildings and campuses and move learning into an online virtual world, that will be super easy.

    4. Accept that a four-year liberal arts education will be beyond the financial reach of most people. Provide federal funding for community college.

    5. Take over the boards of the community colleges to ensure they only offer coursework that is pre-professional and serves industry’s needs.

    6. Have the government underwrite or subsidize Associates degrees to boost college completion for more students. But at the end, the students will still need more training.

    7. Online for profit companies (Florida Virtual School and Western Governor’s University models) will offer students the chance to get their needed credentials for a price much lower than a liberal arts college, but still at a level that it will need to be financed-say $10,000 or so.

    8. Accept the fact that companies will no longer pay to train you for their jobs. They don’t want thinkers with raw potential. They want a set of credentials to do the job they have right now.

    9. The robot algorithms will sift online resume submissions for those jobs demanding the right set of credentials in the online portfolio.

    10. When industry outsources your job or makes it obsolete, they lay you off and put up another online ad for a job with different competencies.

    11. People throughout their life (lifelong learning) will chase the newest set of in-demand credentials. Rather than paying for a four year college, plus some higher degree maybe, you just have a baseline pre-professional education and chase competency/credentials so you can keep chasing the changing job market.

    12. A liberal arts education is less and less valued unless you have a job at the highest levels of a company, and those jobs will go to the grads of elite universities.

    13. Companies will no longer do on the job training in a real sense. You will need to be serviced by these online companies to get them.

    14. There will be a big new market for student loan financing that will be repeated throughout your life. That’s where Lumina and Nellie Mae come in.

    15. There will be zero quality control. People pay online education providers up front to try and get the credential for mastery, but if they don’t ever attain mastery, they don’t get their money back. But the debt stays with them.

    Now, read this news story about a criminal for-profit online college in Florida given what I have just said and imagine the money to be made, the players who stand to gain, and what will happen if we don’t change course.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.