Ahead of departure, Cerf assesses impact of reforms on Newark schools

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

A transition more than 20 years in the making. The state seized control of Newark Schools in 1995 in the face of mismanagement, neglect and corruption. On Thursday, after years of hard work and upheaval, the Newark School District regains control of its own fate and finances. The outgoing state-appointed Superintendent Chris Cerf joins Senior Correspondent David Cruz.

Cruz: I think the first time we met, you were still commissioner of education and it was a very contentious meeting in Jersey City. In fact, our interview did not go particularly well. Yet, I guess two or three years later, you came to Newark as someone who was going to “calm the waters.” What was the evolution of Chris Cerf from that kind of rambunctious guy to the peacemaker?

“Change is hard, and change on behalf of impoverished children in every city in America has not happened successfully without causing a little bit of dust to be kicked up.”

Cerf: Well, first of all, it’s great to be here with you, David. I remember that interview and it was the first of many we’ve had, all which have been an absolute pleasure. So, as we approach the end of my tenure here and as we approach the official date of local control this Thursday, I have a lot to look back on and a lot of things to frankly feel a deep sense of fulfillment about. One of those is that I feel that the successes that we, and I want to underscore the “we,” have had, because the successes the city has seen very much belong to the people, to the community, to the incredible team at NPS, Newark Public Schools, to the mayor and other elected officials who really pulled together, sometimes in a discordant and sometimes in a high decibel way, but around a clear goal and that goal is to make sure that a child’s life opportunities are not determined by the circumstances into which he or she is born and we have done that.

Cruz: Are the waters calmer?

Cerf: I think the waters are absolutely calmer than they have been at certain points, not just over the last few years, but over the last decades in Newark. I think there are a lot of reasons for that. It’s possible that what I brought to the work contributed to that, but I think the reasons are considerably broader than that. But, the single biggest reason is that this is a city on the rise. It’s visible everywhere. And, we see that in the educational outcomes we’re seeing, our graduation rate is up 20 percent.

Cruz: We’re going to get to that, not to interrupt you, but just in terms of local control, before our time gets away from us, that begins Thursday, but there is a two-year transition plan under which the local district will still be under state monitoring. Is that right?

Cerf: Not quite, David. So, local control fully and completely and legally has returned as of Feb. 1 by the most important measures. The school board, which used to be known as the advisory board, is now the full board. The state does not have veto power over its actions. The school board selects the superintendent. But, it was the commitment of the state, and frankly of everybody involved in this, to make sure that this transition happened in a smooth and responsible way. So, the transition was accompanied by a plan, that as you suggest, lasts for two years and it puts in place a number of what you might describe as guardrails, as guidance, as supports to make sure this transition happens smoothly.

Cruz: So, there is consensus that student performance is on the rise, graduation rates are way up and there was this Harvard report that came out that said that the performance was up in a number of areas, and they said that a lot of it had to do with the reforms that were put in place during your predecessor’s tenure. Is it time to reevaluate Cami Anderson’s legacy?

Cerf: Well, first of all, the premise is accurate that what Cami Anderson did required a great deal of courage.

Cruz: Because it was a tick downward and then a serious tick upward.

Cerf: That’s correct. A lot of sort of the ideas that she implemented, by the way as a state-operated district, I was a state commissioner during much of that period so it was something that whatever mistakes that have been attributed to her, I have always stepped up and said, you better attribute those to me. But, the foundations for the successes we are seeing were absolutely commenced during the period when she was here.

Cruz: So, I guess they were just kind of stylistic differences that required a new voice?

Cerf: Well, I’m looking forward here. Ms. Anderson is no longer here. I am about to fade to black. And, as I look at the body of work here that occurred over the last eight years, there is no responsible argument other than to conclude that it has succeeded if the measure is academic success and we all have had a role in that.

Cruz: Two quick questions and two quick answers, if you would. In November, Newarkers will decide whether or not their school board should be appointed by the mayor or elected independently. You have thoughts on that?

Cerf: I don’t, or if I did I wouldn’t share them because I feel that is a decision…

Cruz: You’re going to be gone, come on.

Cerf: I feel that is a decision that civic leadership and more particularly the people of Newark should make independently.

Cruz: Is there evidence to suggest that either way works better?

Cerf: There’s evidence on all sides of that question. The answer to any hard question in the realm of education is, it depends.

Cruz: It’s complicated.

Cerf: It’s complicated and that’s certainly true here.

Cruz: This $100 million of so-called Facebook money, did it have its proper impact?

Cerf: It absolutely catalyzed the change that we’re seeing and it has been surrounded by some of the most aggressive myth-making I’ve ever seen in the field. First of all, just to contextualize it, we have a billion dollar a year budget. That was with the matching grant, $200 million over five years, so it wasn’t material in the absolute sense. Almost all of that money went directly into the traditional public schools and directly into the pockets of teachers to facilitate a new approach to collective bargaining, a new approach to teacher compensation. Virtually none of it, in relative terms, went to consultants, yet that myth has been something that has been perpetuated through the years. I will tell you that the successes we’ve seen today, for example three times as many African-Americans today now go to a school that beats the state average, and New Jersey’s no slouch from a national perspective. Not only our graduation rate, but our college attendance rate, our college persistence rate. We started out at the bottom of the heap compared to other districts. We are now at the absolute top of the heap. We are outperforming Denver, we’re outperforming D.C., we’re outperforming the entire states of Illinois and Rhode Island, all of our kids are. This happened through a really complicated slog. It happened in a way that inevitably was going to precipitate reaction. It happened in part because of some mistakes that I and others made in a way that perhaps caused more friction or more disagreement than was otherwise necessary. But, I can promise you this, David, that even if all of us had a different approach to the finer points of engagement or so on, there would have been controversy. I guarantee that because change is hard, and change on behalf of impoverished children in every city in America has not happened successfully without causing a little bit of dust to be kicked up.

Cruz: All right. So now, what’s next for you?

Cerf: The truthful answer is, I don’t know. I have spent a lifetime committed to public education and committed to the principle that we must not live in a country where an individual’s future, happiness, income, health, life depends on the circumstances into which she or he is born. I am going to stay involved in that cause. I have not yet allowed myself to consider the particular perch I will be on to pursue that value.

Cruz: All right, so he’s available folks. Chris Cerf, congratulations and thanks very much for coming on.

Cerf: Thanks so much, take care.