Newark’s troubled public schools are winding up a year having finalized a new teachers contract, having initiated critical upgrades to aging buildings and having made inroads toward regaining control from the state for the first time in 22 years. Newark’s state-appointed School Superintendent Chris Cerf sat down with David Cruz.
Cruz: So, I haven’t seen you for awhile, you looked to have settled in into this latest job.
Cerf: Thanks. I really feel good about the work, good about where the district is today and good about the path we are on for future progress.
Cruz: It seems to me that the biggest thing is that the temperature has just been just turned down considerably. I remember the last year of your predecessor, I mean that was tumult the whole year long. Was that part of our goal, to kind of cool things out a little bit?
Cerf: Well, I will say this, I think your observation is correct. I think that there is a real focus in the city of Newark from all quarters. From the mayor’s office, to the city council’s perspective, from the elected school board’s prospective and from Newark Public Schools to keep an eye on what matters and that is making sure every child gets equitable access to a quality public education.
Cruz: Was part of your job here, to the extent that you were giving marching orders or not, was part of it to not only turn down the temperature, but also to maybe re-brand and implement what was called One Newark then. Was that part of the mission?
Cerf: Well, there were no marching orders, but I will say this that I have always operated on the view that so long as people are focused on finding the right policies that advance student learning, then we can have disagreements about what those policies are, but we can’t have disagreements about what the basic underlying facts are. One of the things I’ve tried to do is to get us to collectively focus on what the objective facts are. And the objective facts are, I think, pretty simple. It’s that the schools are performing better, the graduation rate has been up every year for many years now is at about 74 percent today. Math scores are up, reading scores are up and part of this is because of the work, whatever label you want to put on it. And its featured by several things: one we just entered into a new collective bargaining agreement that renewed the really sort of nation-leading collective bargaining agreement of 2012 which really puts a focus on effectiveness and quality and teacher development. We have really focused on high standards and high expectation for all children and we’ve really empowered parents with the opportunity to figure out what is the right school for their child’s needs and I think all of those had made a difference.
Cruz: So is that One Newark essentially re-branded as Newark Enrolled? I mean, there’s some tweaks to that system, but it’s a universal enrollment system still?
Cerf: It’s interesting that you asked that question that way. I would respectively say it a little bit different than that which is that Newark Enrolls is simply a centralized enrollment system. It means that when you are an entering kindergartner, for example, and there are more people who want to go to a particular school then there are seats in that school, what are some of neutral, equitable rules to decide who to prioritize. Do you prioritize whether you already have a sibling in the school? Do you prioritize whether you live in that neighborhood?
Cruz: Right, but isn’t that part of what One Newark was, a system for that?
Cerf: One Newark, I wasn’t president of the creation, but One Newark essentially said look we are going to be indifferent to how a school comes in the being, whether it’s a traditional school, we just care that it is a great school. We also are focusing on empowering parents with choice. Unfortunately, that name sort of got co-opted in the sort of high decibel political discussion, but Newark Enrolls is not One Newark. It’s a very different thing, it’s a component of it.
Cruz: Alright. So I have very few seconds, maybe 30, tell me about local control, where you are and when this is going to happen?
Cerf: We are making great process, I am committed to it, the board is committed to it, everybody is committed to it. We just had our state review last week. It went very well. We anticipate getting our scores back, it’s a metric based system. I anticipate that will be successful and the process will move forward that involves a state board vote. The ultimate process, I would hope that the state board will vote for full control in the fall. It will then require a development transition plan and when that is completed, the process will be complete.
Cruz: A year or two?
Cerf: Oh, it’s less than that. I would be very surprised if it went much past the beginning of the new year.
Cruz: Alright, Christopher Cerf thanks for coming in.
Cerf: Thanks so much, my pleasure.