Newark schools return to local control after more than 20 years

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka addressed the state board of education today upon return of full local control after more than 20 years Credits: Elana Knopp
Superintendent of Newark Public Schools Christopher Cerf lauded the collaborative efforts of city and school officials as full local control was returned to the district today Credits: Elana Knopp

Today marks the dawning of a new era in the City of Newark, as full local control was returned to the district after more than 20 years under state control.

The New Jersey State Board of Education voted unanimously today to return the city to local control after the city relinquished its self-governance to the state in 1995, when a judge determined that too many of Newark's schools and students were failing.

Read: NJSpotlight's take on the state Board of Education vote.The transition plan is expected to take a few months, and if given the state board's approval will be presented to the district's board of education.

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Although the move to full local control has been anticipated for several years, the board's vote was met with much emotion as Newark city and school officials noted the years of collaborative efforts to achieve the milestone.

The state’s education commissioner will now work with the district in developing a transition plan outlining the final steps towards gaining full local control in the district. The plan will offer a timetable leading to the withdrawal from state intervention, including specific goals, benchmarks and governance, among others.

Read: NJSpotlight's take on the state Board of Education vote.

Although the state will continue to monitor the district, Newark will now self-govern.

State Board of Education President Arcelio Aponte said that district statistics confirm the city is ready to take back control of its schools.

“We have a lot to celebrate,” Aponte said. “There has been double digit in improvement in Newark and other districts. Today’s initiation of return to local control sets a high bar and I have no doubt they will reach that bar. Newark is ready, willing and able.”

The process of returning local control began in 2007 with the adoption of QSAC, or Quality Single Accountability Continuum, a monitoring and evaluation system used to measure performance in public school districts.

In 2014, the district regained control of fiscal management, with control of personnel management returning in 2016.

In July, state Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington revealed that the district was above 80 percent in all QSAC categories, including instruction and program, fiscal management, governance and operations and personnel.

At today’s meeting of the board, control was handed back to the district in two final categories— Instruction and Programming and Governance -- with Aponte noting that the district had met the benchmark of 80 or above.

“Newark has demonstrated substantial and sustained progress,” Aponte said, noting increased QSAC scores since 2007. “There is evidence that the district has adequate policies in place.”

State Board of Education Vice President Ron Butcher lauded the district for their efforts and perseverance.

“Meeting standards for QSAC wasn’t easy, but you’ve done it,” he said. “And now you will receive fruits of your labor.”

Butcher, who was on the state board at the time of the district's takeover noted the state’s failure to plan for the dramatic move.

“What we didn’t realize that there was no mechanism to return to local control,” he said, stating that QSAC was put into place to manage the transition. “It took much longer than anticipated, but the information and data indicates that the return of local control is warranted at this time.”

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said it was a momentous day for the city and recalled his experiences at the time of the takeover.

“I was a teacher when the state took over,” Baraka said. “…At that moment, I felt like we were being annexed. In 1995, we were going through some difficult times and at that moment we needed help, we needed support. What we did not need was to be taken over.”

North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr., a former advisory board member who was chair of the board during Superintendent Marion Bolden's tenure, said he has witnessed first hand the positive transformation of the district, including expansion of early child hood education and preschool programs, expansion of educational and programmatic options, physical improvements of our school facilities and recreation sites and efforts to empower parents in decision making.

"While progress is noted, we still have a lot of work ahead of us," Ramos said. "With local control comes a greater sense of local responsibility. Ensuring that our local public schools are successfully is a collective responsibility and failure is not an option."

Superintendent of Newark Public Schools Christopher Cerf said the district has made significant gains in PARCC scores and graduation rates, among other areas.

“This is truly a historic moment,” Cerf said. “Newark Public School students have indeed made great progress and it is evidenced in every measurable statistic.”

Cerf cited the districts significant improvements in PARCC results in both ELA (English/Language Arts) and Math.

According to preliminary PARCC results put out by the district, NPS students improved by 2.7 percentage points in ELA and 2.8 percentage points in math overall, besting statewide gains.

Participation rates also increased, with more than 93 percent of students taking the PARCC, up from 90 percent in 2016, Cerf said. 

"Newark's leaders are uniting around the common goal," he said. "A foundation has been erected and it will now be built on. There is a unity of purpose around that. Progress and unity are the themes of the day."

Cerf said the evaluation process has been taken very seriously by the district, noting a redesigned budgeting process, recruitment and retainment of educators, improved special education program, among other improvements.

Cerf thanked the mayor and city and school officials for their efforts, also stating that the district had notable accomplishments prior to the state’s takeover.

“Teachers were doing an amazing job before the takeover,” stating that many heroic moments have occurred in the district’s classrooms.

Cerf lauded parents and students for their support throughout the process.

“For parents and families, this has been a noisy process but throughout, everyone has kept their eye on the prize,” he said. “Underneath everything, there has been an insistence on better schools and better options.”

Cerf called the issue of underperforming schools a civil rights issue.

“It is not a coincidence that the schools in America’s cities that serve African American students are underperforming,” he said. “That’s not a coincidence. That’s what happened here, and we continue to pay the price for that horrific legacy.”

State Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz told the board that she would immediately work towards creating improved legislation going forward, noting that the state’s process should have been a partnership with the school district instead of a takeover.

“As senator of District 29, I say long overdue,” she said. “Over two decades later, I have learned one thing—state takeover doesn’t work. Today it ends and local control begins. What does that mean? It means a lot of work. I look forward to the days to come, I look forward to the years to come. For our city and our children—greatness is yet to come.”

Baraka said a joint effort was needed to sustain improvements in the district.

“It is our job to collectively make it better,” he said. “There are hundreds and hundreds of parents, teachers and administrators who are ecstatic today after two decades of us being under state control,” the mayor said. “It doesn’t mean we have a magic wand. We have an opportunity to have a say so. All of our institutions are ready for this in the private and public sector. We are poised and ready to move our kids into the next century.”

Cerf noted that city leaders must do the right thing for Newark's students going forward.

"The test for Newark is that going forward is that every leader must make decisions best for Newark’s 55,000 students," Cerf said.

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