Newark arguably once served as a paradigm of what can go wrong in a school district. But now, 25 years after the state took control of the city's school district, the tide has shifted.
Notably, in 2007 with new state assessment standards, the city was able to guide itself into regaining local control of its schools through the implementation of core standards, such as a district-wide curriculum, improved student assessments, new evaluation standards for teachers, teacher retention and school choice.
Education reform advocate Rashon Hasan has been at the forefront of education in Newark and is determined to help create leaders who can positively impact the landscape of education and education reform.
Hasan, a Newark native, formerly served as vice president of the Newark Charter School Fund, as a Newark Board of Education chair, vice president of Legal for the Essex County School Boards Association and is now with the Youth and Engagement Division of The Aspen Institute, where he serves as a Fellow Success Coach for the Aspen Young Leaders Fellowship.
The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, DC with additional campuses in New York, Aspen and on Maryland’s East Shore. The institute's goal is to foster leadership and prove a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues.
“Our program, Aspen Young Leaders Fellowship (AYLF), is focused on developing the next generation of local purpose- driven leaders,” Hasan said. “We are developing leadership and entrepreneurship skills in our youth so they can lead and transform their communities. I love the work that we do because we are teaching young people to be go beyond the conventional methods of learning and thinking so they can challenge the status quo.”
As a Fellow Success Coach for the AYLF, Hasan supports local efforts to establish strategic partnerships and recruit candidates for the program.
The team has partnered with Newark Public Schools and Rutgers Newark to bring AYLF to the Greater Newark Area and is currently recruiting its next cohort of students in the Greater Newark Area, with the application going live on Nov. 1.
“I am actively engaging with school leaders and community-based organizations to recruit a diverse cohort of program fellows,” he said. “We're teaching young leaders to think big and also giving them the tools they need to bring their ideas to life. These are skills that many students won't get in a typical school environment. There's no youth leadership like this in the country.”
Hasan's work in creating leaders and revolutionary thinkers mirrors much of what he believes is needed in the City of Newark, stating that leaders and policymakers need to shake up the status quo for Newark to become a city of educational excellence.
This, said Hasan, requires some tough decision-making and the re-engineering of public education.
“The state of education in Newark is in limbo right now,” Hasan said. “Some of the challenges are clear and I think there are others that rear their ugly heads now and again.”
With last month’s state board vote to return local control to the district, a referendum will be held asking voters to decide whether to elect board members or have them appointed by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.
The issue of district leadership, Hasan said, is the starting point for a conversation about what kind of leaders the district needs, also noting that parents would lose out if board members were appointed.
"Board members need to be allowed to do the jobs they were elected to do," he said. “As far as the local control process, I’m somewhat disgusted by the lack of engagement on the part of current board members."
But Hasan said he blames "the people around the board members," not the board members themselves.
"I’ve been in that position as a board member with eight other capable individuals," he said. "You have to allow these people to do their jobs. There’s no conversation with board members to get their input and that is very disheartening. The simplest thing is to just get out and vote. We have one of the lowest turnouts and Newark is the largest district in New Jersey. The people you are voting for are running a billion-dollar industry. For parents of black and brown children, education is what will help us have a level playing field. We’re not engaged enough in the process.”
Hasan noted a recent WBGO panel where local control was the topic of discussion.
“There were no board members representing the Newark Board of Education on the panel,” he said. “How can you not have representation from the current board body? I's not new behavior but now there are community members who have become aware of it."
As for who should sit at the helm as the district's new superintendent of schools, Hasan believes the role must be filled by a visionary.
"We need someone who thinks outside of the box, someone who is willing to challenge ths status quo," he said. "We need a person who can develop the appropriate team members to execute that strategy and that vision."
Hasan said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, as well as some unnamed nonprofit organizations, need to allow the district to move forward.
“City Hall, the mayor—they need to take a step back from the process and allow the board members to lead,” Hasan said. “Nonprofits need to take a step back."
Hasan also said the district needs to do a better job managing its finances.
“I don’t subscribe to the idea that we don’t have enough money to run the district,” he said.
Because each charter school is its own Local Education Agency (LEA), each individual school should be viewed as its own district, according to Hasan. Add Newark Public Schools to the mix and one could argue there are more than 20 school districts in the City of Newark.
“There’s nothing that forces these school districts to establish a co-op when it goes out and purchases products and services,” he said. “Before we say we need more money, we need to make sure we’re getting our products and services at the best price. All districts need to collectively go out and purchase products and services together.”
Another issue is Newark's low tax base, with just 20 percent of school funding coming from the city.
“The vast majority comes from the state and some from the federal government,” Hasan said. “The state has to figure out how to figure this out. The two major issues are schools and pensions—neither is fully-funded. How do you decide which one to fully fund? We’re in a phase where we’re seeing a lot of redevelopment, but these developments are not generating more home owners so that we can have more of our school costs covered by a local tax base,” he said. “We rely too much on state funding.”
Regarding any conflict between district and charter schools, Hasan believes that issue has turned a corner.
“I think we’re starting to see a glimpse of charter and district unity now and then,” he said. “People will say in a public space that we should be talking about quality, then they cite charter schools as outperforming district schools. That’s a very misguided way of entering into a conversation. We need to be sharing best practices about why one school is doing better than another.”
But Hasan still questions the lack of collaboration between district and charter school boards.
“How many of us are collaborating?” he said. “If we got together in a room and created policy, we would be forced to follow through and execute what that policy mandates.”
Hasan said parents in the district are poised to become change makers but that effective organization is key to implementing these changes.
“There’s some great things happening on the ground with parents,” he said. “They’re engaging, learning a lot more about the electoral process and becoming advocates. We need to teach parents how to organize. Going out to protest is just part of it; we need to teach them to have very healthy civil discourse. Our job shouldn't be to just educate kids from pre-K to 12th grade. We have to set kids up for success, and success shouldn't just happen in the principal's office at the schools. Parents need to be part of this process."