Thursday was the first time school was in session in Newark since last year's tumultuous school year that was riddled with controversy.
Newark Schools Superintendent Christopher Cerf greeted teachers and walked the halls of Barringer High School in Newark's North Ward on the first day of school.
Confusion, student protests and the eventual ouster of former superintendent Cami Anderson marked Newark's public schools, as Anderson turned out to be a different kind of uniter - the igniter of a dedicated campaign against Anderson, who was appointed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in 2011 to lead the city's schools, state-run since 1995.
Opposition to Anderson brought together a diverse coalition driven by one mission - to remove her and block her One Newark school reorganization plan, which closed and consolidated many schools across the district.
Anderson resigned in June, eight months before her contract was to expire.
So what’s new in New Jersey’s largest school district, which remains under the thumb of state control? Since Anderson’s early-summer departure, former state education commissioner and long-time Anderson supporter, Christopher Cerf, has swiftly taken the reins in what has been a bittersweet transition for the city, where many remember that Cerf, Christie's education commissioner in 2011, appointed Anderson in the first place.
On the first official day of school, Cerf greeted teachers and walked the halls of Barringer High School in Newark's North Ward. As Cerf made his rounds, students looked on attentively as teachers laid out their lesson plans for the new year. The school was the scene of much contention just a year ago, with complaints of overcrowded classrooms, teacher vacancies and a lack of desks for students.
This year however, Cerf is trying to paint a very different picture. He says the district has gone above and beyond to mitigate the type of issues, such as transportation and enrollment, that led to district-wide problems last year as the One Newark plan was rolled out. Cerf went on to tout the more than 800 projects completed district-wide this summer, including much needed renovations to some of the district's most dilapidated buildings, as well as a nearly 100 percent teacher placement record.
“For those who are carrying a negative narrative about what’s going on with teaching and learning in this district, I invite you to go and spend time at some of these schools. It is a beautiful thing,” Cerf said.
Cerf acknowledged the problems the district still faces, but he said "it's time to turn the page."
“At the end of the day, everyone is aligned around student success," said Cerf.
Cerf has yet to dismantle Anderson’s One Newark plan despite deep community opposition to the plan, manifested during last year's protests. However, Cerf has extended an olive branch of sorts in recent weeks, meeting and communicating regularly with city officials, board members, and parents alike. Newark City Council President Mildred Crump says that while the jury is still out the new superintendent, Cerf has brought about one major change - communication.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and Cerf have joined forces, with Gov. Christie's blessing, to recently form the Newark Educational Success Board. The board’s main goal is to provide a detailed road map and clear timeline to return the district to local control after more than two decades under Trenton's control.
Cerf said he speaks regularly with Baraka, who served as the principal of Newark's Central High School before he was elected mayor in 2014 after a contentious mayoral campaign. Newark's new school superintendent claimed that he even exchanged text messages on the first day of the new school year with Baraka, a noted change from last year, when Baraka and Anderson regularly exchanged barbed criticisms.
While Newark's first school first day flowed relatively smoothly, sans the boycotts and chaos that ran rampant just a year ago, it is by no means the end of the decades-long saga centered on who controls Newark's schools.
But while he noted that "it's not reasonable for him to be aligned with the mayor on every point," Cerf, citing his respect for the Baraka administration, said that "there are amazing points of overlap" between his office and City Hall.
Alexandra Hill is a staff radio reporter for WBGO News, a news reporting partner of NewarkInc.com.