Newark schools set to begin new era under local control

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

There was a buoyancy, a palpable esprit de corps among staff as they gathered at the Prudential Center for the annual Newark school district convocation. After two tumultuous decades of state control, with superintendent after superintendent promulgating unpopular reforms, this school year marks the beginning of a new era.

“When you’ve had the state on your back for 20 years, you’re sort of like a beat dog,” said Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon. “Every initiative that you’ve put forward that was positive for staff or students was vetoed or beat down by the state-appointed superintendent or the commissioners of education under Chris Cerf, and we’re hoping that there’s going to be a brighter and lighter future for us.”

From municipal leaders the tone was defiance. Months after the state packed its bags and the search for a new superintendent produced a local boy made good, leaders were urging teachers and staff to stick their chests out and keep their heads high.

“Show me how we’re going to create the next president of the United States,” roared Sen. Teresa Ruiz. “Show me how a kid is going to walk into our preschool classroom in September not knowing English and recite the national anthem in the first week of November. Show me the work that you can do. Show me the love that Newark has. Show them that we are extra and we are great.”

Mayor Ras Baraka, a former school principal, rallied the audience of teachers and staff.

“You are the future of our city,” he said. “Our city cannot go forward unless you cultivate, create and develop our young people. Not only so they can be citizens, but so they can take on the responsibility of changing a system that is designed to make them fail.”

And the new superintendent, Roger León? In front of thousands of enthusiastic staff at the start of a new school year, he was feeling himself.

“I’m not the chief,” he said, strutting across the stage. “I’m the boss.”

León outlined a strategy that he said reflects the common-sense approach he will take to continue reforms at the 35,000-student, nearly billion dollar district.

“Let me ask you if this is a good strategy,” he smiled. “Improve student achievement, provide resources to our teaching staff, acknowledge the work, make sure that the principals get their support, teachers get their support, that all of the resources that we need to make our classrooms function are afforded to you. Does that sound like a good strategy?”

León says the district has cut top-heavy administrators and found over $4 million in savings, which he said he was excited to start spreading around Newark classrooms.

“The fact that Mr. León was part of the district before and he was here, so he knows about Newark. He grew up in Newark, and I think that’s what’s going to make it better,” said Quitman Street School Academic Interventionist Joyce Henry-Faller.

There is always enthusiasm and optimism at the beginning of a school year, but this year is different. This is the first time in decades that school administrators will be able to run things, their way, on their own.