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.
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.
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.
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.
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.