Newark school district seeks community collaboration in preparation for local control

Community members and school leaders joined forces at a community planning meeting Wednesday to discuss the district's return to full local control Credits: Elana Knopp
Community meetings were held at schools throughout the district Wednesday, where community members and school leaders discussed a number of issues as the district returns to local control Credits: Elana Knopp

In preparation for the transition to full local control, Newark Public Schools held a series of community meetings on Wednesday, where parents, community members, elected officials and school leaders were offered the opportunity to collaborate on a number of critical issues as the district moves forward.

Held at district schools throughout the city, the local control planning meetings paired school leaders and facilitators with parents and community members to discuss issues of school board ethics and the hiring of a new superintendent, as well as future collaborative efforts between the district, school board and community members.

Attendees were asked to discuss expectations of school board members during and after the transition, criteria for the hiring of a new superintendent and any issues of concern to be addressed by school board members, the district and community as a whole.

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Each discussion was facilitated by a school leader and later shared at the meeting.

The state board of education voted in September to return operational control to district schools following the creation and completion of a transition plan.

In line with regulations, the state's Department of Education--in collaboration with the district--will now develop a plan for the withdrawal of state intervention and the return of oversight in the area of Governance and Instruction and Program.

Improved Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC) scores between 2007 and 2016 in the areas of Operations, Fiscal Management and Personnel allowed the state board to return control to the district.

In 2015-26, the Newark Education Success Board developed and published a report, “Pathways to Local Control,” to help guide the district’s transition, while in September 2016, district and school board leaders--with significant public input--finalized a strategic plan.

In 2016-17, a transition plan for Personnel was developed and approved by state Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington, with the district passing muster in the final two QSAC domains of Governance and Instruction and Program.

At Wednesday's meeting held at Central High School, Deputy Superintendent of Newark Public Schools Robert Gregory welcomed those in attendance, calling the moment historic.

BOE Chair Marques-Aquil-Lewis expressed excitement and shared efforts of BOE members as the district transitions to local control.

“To come together as a community on how we’re going to transition to a local control district, we as a board don’t take this responsibility lightly,” he said, noting that board members have been attending education conferences throughout the state and country.

The board recently received Master Board Certification from the New Jersey State Board of Education (NJSBA), the first and only school board in Essex County--and one of just 18 out of 581 districts in the state--to achieve this status.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, in a videotaped message, noted the intent of the meeting.

“We have been waiting this day for a very, very long time,” Baraka said. “Please use this as an opportunity to say as much as you can, to be as critical as you need to be…This is just a small piece in moving district to local control.”

Superintendent of Newark Public Schools Christopher Cerf, also in a videotaped message, saluted BOE members for their efforts.

“I will feel very confident that all of us have fulfilled our mission if we keep our eye on the tremendous progress our students have made,” Cerf said. “We don’t see this as an “us,” we see this as a “we,” and this village is the village that is going to come together to make sure our students are advancing in the city.”

The district has made significant gains in recent years, with core standards such as a district-wide curriculum, improved student assessments, new evaluation standards for teachers, teacher retention and school choice have significantly helped to move the district forward.

Marked improvements in PARCC results in both ELA (English/Language Arts) and Math over the last five years have propelled citywide growth of Newark students, who now dramatically outpace their peers in 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.

Data shows that 40 out of 56 NPS schools have improved in ELA, while 43 out of 56 have made gains in math.

District gains have also been made on the state's Student Growth Measure (SGP), with NPS students making faster gains in reading than their peers statewide, according to the latest data.

Graduation rates have also significantly increased in recent years, improving by more than 20 percentage points.

When the state took over more than two decades ago, just 54 percent of Newark’s students were graduating. Today, that rate has increased to 77 percent, with the expectation that it will rise to 78 percent by year’s end.

In addition, last year's NPS graduating classes saw more students matriculating to some of the country’s top colleges and universities.

Between now and 2018, the NJDOE will draft a full transition plan in collaboration with NPS, local school board members and the mayor’s office. The plan, which will be presented to the Newark community at a future school board meeting, will identify a date for the return of full local control to Newark schools.

The plan will include topics such as the process for hiring a new superintendent, holding a public referendum to determine whether school board members will be elected ir appointed by the mayor, identifying specific areas for further training of board members, as well as specific provisions and benchmarks for Governance, Instruction and Program and other QSAC areas.

Newark's school district is the largest in the state, with 67 school buildings and more than 55,000 students.

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