Newark school district opens new headquarters as it readies for local control

Wednesday's opening of Newark Public Schools' new central office in downtown Newark was a who's who of county, state, city and education dignitaries. Credits: Elana Knopp
It was Christopher Cerf's last public act as Newark's superintendent as he officially cut the ribbon on the district’s new headquarters on Wednesday in downtown Newark. Credits: Elana Knopp
The opening of the new headquarters comes one week before the school board gains full authority and as NPS Deputy Superintendent Robert Gregory prepares to take on the role of interim superintendent. Credits: Elana Knopp
Incoming Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory was appointed earlier this month by the school board and will be putting forth his candidacy for the position of school superintendent. Credits: Elana Knopp

It was Christopher Cerf's last public act as Newark's school superintendent as he officially cut the ribbon on the district’s new central office on Wednesday, marking a major milestone as the city prepares for the return to local control.

Cerf was joined by  a who's who of county, state, city and education dignitaries including Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, NPS school board members, the Newark city council, Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, Assemblywomen Eliana Pintor Marin and Cleopatra Tucker and educators representing both district and charter schools for a gathering that marked a new beginning as the district readies to take control of its schools for the first time in 22 years.

The new headquarters, located on Broad Street in downtown Newark, will house more than 300 NPS employees and, according to NPS, will save the district more than $2 million annually through decreased rent, maintenance and operational expenses.

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The district's former headquarters were located a few blocks north on Cedar Street, where the central office had been housed for 25 years.

Over the past six months, four floors in the 97,000 sq.-ft building have been built out to include corporate offices, the Family Support Center—which moved from its W. Kinney Street location—and a new, state-of-the-art science lab for students.

The lab, which will open in the spring, will be run in partnership with nonprofit organization Students 2 Science (S2S) and will serve as a resource for NPS’s science education programs.

The opening of the new headquarters comes one week before the school board gains full authority and as NPS Deputy Superintendent Robert Gregory prepares to take on the role of interim superintendent.

Gregory was appointed earlier this month by the school board and will be putting forth his candidacy for the position of school superintendent.

Cerf reflected on the years since he took the helm of the district in 2015, noting the progress and shift in discourse since then.

“This is a day to give thanks and take stock,” Cerf said. “I feel a tremendous sense of fulfillment. This is really not about me—this is about what we’ve accomplished. All arrows are pointing up, this city is poised for success. Most centrally, the conversation in this city is now centered around educational success.”

Despite state aid per pupil remaining flat over the last several years, Cerf noted that monies allocated to each school is up, crediting this in part to the sale of 13 buildings, a new medical plan for district employees, a $31 million bond raised by the district and $57 million new dollars from the state.

Cerf also celebrated the measured progress the district has made in recent years and has consistently used the data to push the district forward.

Data shows that NPS proficiency rates have gone up significantly over the last five years, with the citywide growth of Newark students dramatically outpacing similar districts.

When compared to the 37 most demographically similar districts in the state, Newark has gone from the 42nd percentile to the 83rd in math, and from the 44th percentile to the 81st in English.

Strong gains have also narrowed the opportunity gap between African-American students and the statewide average by about 25 percent in ELA and 20 percent in math in just two years.

Since 2015, NPS has seen greater gains in grades 3-11 in both English/Language Arts (ELA) and Math than statewide gains for the same time period, with an 8.7 percent improvement in ELA and a 5.3 percent increase in Math.

With citywide gains of 12 points over the past two years in ELA and seven points in math, elementary schools across Newark have narrowed the statewide gap by five points and three points in each area respectively.

Results also show that NPS compares favorably to other urban districts such as Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Albuquerque, particularly when it comes to low-income students. Newark outperformed more than 80 percent of similar urban districts in New Jersey, with citywide results showing all Newark students outperforming several other PARCC statewide averages.

Precise three-year cohort data—groups of the same students measured over time—reveals that third-grade students who stayed with NPS showed consistent growth in both ELA and math.

Graduation rates in the district have increased by nearly 20 percentage points in the last seven years to 78 percent.

Cerf noted his "favorite statistic" of 97 percent of highly effective teachers choosing to return to the district.

Gregory called progress in the district the result of a “collective genius.”

“Today is about us, it’s about everybody in this room,” Gregory said. “I am a proud third-generation Newarker. Today is a very proud moment for me. We won’t allow a tale of two cities to emerge in this city. The future of this city lies with the people in this room. Today we celebrate a new school district, a new city, a new hope. It is our time.”

Gregory praised Cerf for his efforts in setting the district on a course for progress, noting that the outgoing superintendent had “stepped into a tsunami” two-and-a-half years ago.

“He had the courage to come and change the discourse in the City of Newark,” Gregory said. “He put in systemic solutions for systemic problems.”

Gregory will head the district until the search for a new superintendent is completed and set in place on July 1.

The search for a new superintendent will be headed by a committee made up of three school board members and three Newark leaders jointly selected by Newark Baraka and state Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington. The search will continue through May 31.

Baraka noted his initial foray into the district in 1992 as a substitute teacher—just three years before the state seized control of the district.

“Today marks a new day, a new idea, a new journey, a new road,” Baraka said, recalling vividly the day the state stepped in. “I wasn’t sure what it meant, but it felt like we were being annexed. Now we are under control of our own mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers. There’s a lot to be excited about, a lot to be proud of, but there’s a lot of work to do.”

School Board Chair Marques Aquil-Lewis stood with his fellow board members at the podium and noted the collaborative efforts in moving the district forward.

“We are a family,” he said. “Today is the next step toward local control. This new central office provides us with a great jumping off point as we prepare for our new responsibilities under local control. The board and district worked together to find a central office space last year that was fiscally responsible and put us in a position to operate more effectively while giving more money to educators, students and classrooms. This is a great example for all of us as we move Newark schools forward: we must commit to doing the right things operationally in order to make sure we are doing what is best for Newark children.”

Cerf said despite an uncertain future, he had confidence in the district’s welfare under recently-elected Democratic Governor Phil Murphy.

“There are uncertainties but none at all if our new governor fulfills even a fraction of his campaign promises,” he said. “I believe this city is committed to the value that all children deserve a free and equitable education. The narrative of failure is being replaced by progress and promise. The 50,000 kids that we serve every day have a very bright future."

In September, the state Board of Education voted to initiate the return of local control to the district after more than two decades under full state intervention. The vote came after it was determined that the district had made significant progress and had satisfied the regulatory requirements of QSAC, or Quality Single Accountability Continuum, the state Department of Education's monitoring and district self-evaluation system used for public school districts.

Cerf, in a heartfelt farewell, expressed his continued support for the district, noting he'd be there if called upon.

"My commitment runs deep and you know where to find me," he said.

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