Stakeholders on all sides of the debate about the future of Newark's troubled public school system assembled at Newark Public Library's Centennial Hall last week to hear veteran journalist Dale Russakoff discuss her new book, “The Prize.”
Veteran Journalist Dale Russakoff at the Newark Public Library discussing her book, "The Prize."
Russakoff’s book details a moment in Newark history that started optimistically with the donation of $100 million from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and ends on a sour note of missed opportunities and questionable philanthropy.
Zuckerberg's gift, presided over and publicized by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker, forms the fulcrum of Russakoff's book. While Republican Gov. Christie has gone off to campaign for President and Democrat Booker has gone off to the U.S. Senate, Russakoff points out the forward progress of Newark's district schools has largely gone nowhere in the past five years.
Also gone from the scene is former Newark Schools Superintendent Cami Anderson, who was appointed by Gov. Christie in 2011 to head Newark’s public schools, which were placed under state control in 1995.
In "The Prize," Russakoff returns repeatedly to the theme of Anderson leading a top-down approach to school reform in Newark, embodied by her installment of the controversial “One Newark” school reorganization scheme last year.
The plan, financed in part by Zuckerberg's money, an infusion into the billion-dollar Newark school budget that was further fueled by matching funds from donors approached by Booker, meant to improve the city’s public education system by increasing students’ school choices and expanding charter schools.
Instead, "One Newark" has left many parents feeling frustrated, confused and disrespected, with decisions that affected their children's lives being made by non-elected bureaucrats. Anderson, under pressure from Gov. Christie as he prepared to launch his presidential bid, resigned in June.
The collective discontent, felt by many Newark voters and stirred up by Anderson's blunt leadership style, played a critical role in the 2014 Newark mayoral election.
South Ward Councilman Ras Baraka, a longtime Newark public school teacher who also served as principal of Newark's Central High School, rode an insurrectionary wave to victory against what Baraka depicted as an outside drive to shape the city's future at locals' expense, a political anathema in Newark since the 1967 civil disturbances almost irrevocably shattered New Jersey's largest city.
During his successful campaign, Baraka, a Newark native, convinced voters that his method to solving Newark's myriad problems, including public school reform, was derived from a purely bottom-up, organic viewpoint that stood in stark contrast from the outlook of the corporate-backed charter school movement that produced Anderson.
But an ironic twist to this triumph, a win built in large part on the demonization of Anderson, is that Baraka admits that he "stole ideas from everywhere" when he turned around Central High School, including "some of the instructional techniques pioneered by the reform movement," points documented in Russakoff's book.
As he extended the school day, intensified test preparation and introduced small learning academies, among other charter school-inspired changes, Baraka, however, added a hard-to-quantify but critically needed sense of personal investment and motivation into education reform, Russakoff notes.
If Baraka has already mastered the art of the steal, he now must master the art of the deal. Newark's mayor now sits across the bargaining table from Christopher Cerf, appointed by Gov. Christie, a longtime ally, as Newark's new superintendent of schools following Anderson's ouster.
While some Newarkers cringe when they remember that Cerf, then the state education commissioner, helped hire Anderson, initial reports indicate that Cerf has tried to build consensus with the community in recent months, employing a management style far different from his predecessor.
An agreement between the Christie and Baraka administrations meant to ease the transition of the Newark school system back to local control from state control was announced in June, but much work still needs to be done to accomplish this goal.
During the question and answer period, city resident Andrew Sosanya, a 17-year-old senior at Newark's St. Benedict's Preparatory School who previously attended both public and charter schools in Newark, asked Russakoff the key question.
"If you were given the money again, what exactly would you do with it?" said Sosanya, as the crowd laughed and cheered. "You can give $100 million to the school system. But if there is no incentive for a complete 180 [degree turnaround] in the system, then what's the point? I've noticed not much change."
Russakoff spoke out in the hope of a move, at long last, toward lasting positive change in Newark's schools.
"I really would have tried to put as much time and energy into figuring out how to get more resources out of the central office and into the classroom," Russakoff said.
"It's clear that this needs to happen, and it's clear that it's going to be a very challenging political struggle to decide how money is going to be spent,” Russakoff said. “It's worth having a real community engagement process to let the public help decide what tough choices to make. And I think it could have been another whole book to try to understand where the money is going."