Perhaps no city is a laboratory for school reform like Newark. Where too often the troubles in the streets can play out in the classrooms. The schools with the highest absentee rate, lowest test scores and dimmest prospects for graduation are categorized as “renew” schools. One reporter embedded herself in the Quitman school. Sara Neufeld wrote an award-winning book on her experience called “A Promise to Renew“. NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams asked her how Quitman became a designated renew school.
Williams: What does the term renew school mean and how does Quitman qualify?
Neufeld: The renew school process began in 2012 where schools that had been historically under-performing were targeted for reforms that were called ‘the renew school reforms’ which basically meant that they would get an influx of resources from the central office, and most significantly that hand-picked Principals would get hiring power over their teachers and the ability to hire from the outside. In exchange they would need to document results and they would be receiving additional students coming from schools that were being closed.
Williams: What were your expectations going into the Quitman School, and what did you learn about it that was different over the three years you stayed there?
Neufeld: Well, it was interesting. We initially intended it for it to be one-year project and I had spent more than a decade covering schools as a daily newspaper reporter previously and just based on the test scores that I saw before going it, I frankly expected it to be a mess, and that wasn’t the case at all. I was really captivated by the story of this Principal and his staff who were working so incredibly hard and doing so much for children that were not getting reflected in their test scores. I just found myself continuing to coming back again and again to see if everything that they were going to put in would pay off for them.
Williams: Tell me about that Principal, Erskine Glover’s leadership style.
Neufeld: When we were first going into the series, we were going around to a meet a couple different principles and decide, and he was the first one we met and then I saw no need for further meetings. He was just so sincere, and so hardworking and genuine and really open to discussing the issues at his school. Not only with the media, but with his staff, and with parents and he really makes this school a very welcoming place for families, which you don’t always see. He holds his staff to a very high standard, which you know, some do well with and some don’t.
Williams: You profiled two middle students. Why is telling the story of two individual students, how does that play into it?
Neufeld: In the course of the three years that I was there, which again was two years longer than I expected, I became a mom myself. This is the second one coming, and as I was preparing for this transition, I found myself more and more interested in the lives of these individual kids. Really what it comes down to at the end of the day is how is school working for them? There is much rhetoric and so much talk about what should be done, but how does it actually play out in the lives of individual children? And by that point, I had looked at various aspects of the school from their special education program, to racial integration, to their teaching selection process, and the huge thing that was really left was to really look at what does this mean for kids and families, and what are the influences happening in their lives outside of school that they bring in with them.
Williams: Which can be substantial.
Neufeld: Right, which can make all the difference to whether their equipment succeeds or fails. We called one chapter, the one about the little girl Nidrasia, “Up in the Air”. She was in a cheerleading competition and she was literally thrown up in the air, but I thought it was the perfect metaphor for the school as well. Where she is up in the air and she is working so hard, but there is also so much that depends on the people who are below her, who have thrown her up, on whether she is going to fall on her feet or not.
Williams: How does what happens outside of school affect the hard work that the teachers and principal are doing?
Neufeld: Well, everything. The early childhood is such a critical component. Quitman is a pre-K-8 school, but of course there’s a transiency with poverty and kids come in and out. Kids often enter with great academic deficits. The school works with them to try to bring them up, but it’s very challenging when they’re coming in and out, and there’s tremendous influences in their lives outside of school that can be so distracting. I’ll never forget the day that I was shadowing for Principal Glover and there were two boys returning to school after their mother had been murdered. The Principal had asked the dad to give the school a heads up when they were coming back to school, so they could have a social worker on hand, but nobody told the school that the boys were coming back, and the social worker was out at training, so then it fell on the Principal to be checking in with them all day. And there are just so many factors, sure.
Williams: One more question: you tried to stay out of Newark school politics, but it inevitably creeped in…
Neufeld: Of course. I thought that the principal did a very good job of walking the line between the two dueling sides in Newark. It just seems to be such common sense that of course you need all of the additional community resources and support and socio-emotional support that was being advocated by global village and by the one side that doesn’t want all the reformers coming in. Yet at the same time, you need some accountability of what’s going on in the classroom, you need teachers who are performing at their best and giving these kids all that they can.