The strange case of Newark’s vanishing principal. Who just reappeared.

Hawthorne Avenue School--without a principal for months
Hawthorne Avenue School–without a principal for months

Nothing more dramatically shows the contempt the state-operated school district obviously feels for the residents of Newark than the way its leaders–first Cami Anderson and now Christopher Cerf–keep parents uninformed about even dramatic changes in their schools. Consider the strange case of H. Grady James, the on-again, off-again, vanishing principal of the Hawthorne Avenue School. Who has now reappeared.

James, by all accounts a successful principal at Hawthorne, didn’t show up for work one day last March–itself an odd occurrence for a man who rarely missed a day and usually was the first one at school in the early morning hours. But then the mystery really deepened because James didn’t show up for a second day. Or a third. Or a fourth….

Spoiler alert–James did finally show up last week to attend the annual principals’ leadership institute run by the state-operated school district and is now back as principal of the Hawthorne Avenue School. Or what’s left of it.

“There’s never been an explanation,” said a teacher at Hawthorne who asked for anonymity because, well, school employees have a habit of disappearing. Especially if, like James, they have committed the infraction of being known.

H. Grady James, he's back.
H. Grady James, he’s back.

Ok, so we all know that the state-operated school district, under Anderson as well as Cerf, doesn’t comment on what it calls “personnel” issues. But this goes quite a ways beyond that.

Imagine a suburban school–oh, let’s just pull one out of the air for the sake of argument–like the Hartshorn Elementary School in Short Hills. Fine school. But imagine the stir if Mr. Ken Frattini, its principal,  suddenly disappeared and never returned–and nobody but nobody from the central office would explain why.  Or appoint an interim replacement. Just let the mystery go unexplained. My guess is the howls of protest would be heard in Trenton and the superintendent would be looking for another job.

But, according to teachers and parents with whom I’ve spoken, nobody but nobody from the central office of the state-operated school district bothered to come to Hawthorne Avenue to explain to students, parents, or school employees about what happened to their boss, Mr. James. Or what would now happen to their school.

That’s contempt.

That’s telling both children and adults that the state administration–the Anderson/Cerf team–doesn’t care a whit about what the people in Newark think.  Why are the children and adults at Hawthorne Avenue any less worthy of respect than the children and adults at Hartshorn? You might want to think about that one for a while.

Let’s talk about some other circumstances that made this offense  even more grievous than it initially appears. James was a good principal at a school where test scores in many areas led the state for schools with the same demographics.  Anderson, Cerf’s pick for Newark superintendent, tried to reward James and his staff by giving Hawthorne away to their friends at TEAM Academy charter schools (you should know that Cerf and Tim Carden, the leader of TEAM Academy, were once business partners). That was part of the original “One Newark” enrollment plan.

It didn’t endear Grady James to Anderson when he appeared with four other principals at a community forum organized by then city councilman and mayoral candidate Ras Baraka to discuss “One Newark.” James and the others were suspended.

The suspensions were soon lifted–but James was the only one to be reinstated to his job. For a while. James then refused to reapply for his job when Anderson wanted all employees at Hawthorne to reapply for their jobs. Anderson backed down and James got to keep his job and Hawthorne was neither given away to charters or slated for “turnaround.”

Looked like a victory for H. Grady James and the side of the angels, right?

But that’s not how the internal politics of the Newark school system works. James was a marked man and, sure enough, come spring, something happened. Just what that something was, no one is saying–but that’s when James disappeared.

And no one from central office came to explain why. Even if, as is likely, James was suspended, one of the $185,000+ per year assistant superintendents might have come down to say something like, “Well, we can’t go into details because this is a personnel matter, but Mr. James won’t be coming back any time soon.”

Not only that–no one was designated as official acting principal.

The place was reeling, especially because Hawtorne had to take in students from the nearby Bragaw Avenue School which the Cerf/Anderson team did give to their old friends at TEAM Academy charter schools (we did mention the business connection between Cerf and Carden, didn’t we?), making many of the Bragaw students refugees in their own neighborhood.  James had a firm hand–but that firm hand disappeared and parents and teachers both say life was not fun in a school without a permanent principal.

The people who brought Newark to where it is now--Booker, Cerf and Anderson. But Cerf has ever so much nicer manners.
The people who brought Newark to where it is now–Booker, Cerf and Anderson. But Cerf has ever so much nicer manners.

But now Mr. James is back. His school, however, has been designated a “turnaround” school and virtually every teacher refused to sign a waiver agreeing to work overtime for minimum wage and so most of them have been transferred elsewhere. James has to deal with a virtually new staff.

This is the way parents in Newark get treated–and have been since Cerf, the current superintendent, first appointed Anderson, the old superintendent. Now Cerf can show his contempt directly to the residents of Newark without using Anderson as a go-between.

It’s an insult and a disgrace–but I’m not hearing a lot of outrage. I guess it’s because Christopher Cerf is just ever so much nicer than Cami Anderson.




  1. Sadly this is why my daughter after so many years, isn’t returning to Hawthorne come Fall. Mr. James is a great Principal, but it also takes a good staff to keep a cohesive wheel turning. Between getting a new staff to work well together and ‘disciplining these Bragraw transfer students along with their Parents’ its going to be a while before Hawthorne resembles is former self. I pray the remainder of students/parents keep up the fight… it’s not an easy one when every turn is met with negativity or no response from the ‘Ones in Authority ‘ aka Central Office

  2. What justification was there to designate Hawthorne Ave School as a turn-around if its indicators were better than state peers? If chaos results in poor performance, that could be a detriment to meeting academic requirements for local control.
    Do Newark parents have to stage a sit-in of their schools?

    1. The kids are the ones sitting in. Check them out on Facebook! This is the worst case of corporate greed and privatization of an education system for profit and cronyism I’ve seen.

  3. What is Principal Tony Motley’s status now that Anderson is gone?

  4. […] Braun unravels a very odd story about a principal who disappeared, went missing without explanation from the central office, then […]

  5. Has anyone asked the governor to explain this? Is it not unusual enough and shouldn’t the buck stop somewhere? If it was Missouri, I would understand…..we have the most gutless people available pretending to be education reporters……….they are living mockeries of the St. Louis Post Dispatch’s long forgotten, but still printed platform… attack predatory plutocracy.

  6. Did you call the district and ask them what happened?

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