Superintendent Chris Cerf on returning Newark Public Schools to local control

Under the leadership of Superintendent of Newark Public Schools Christopher Cerf, the district has returned to local control Credits: Elana Knopp
Superintendent of Newark Public Schools Christopher Cerf discussed measures taken to return local control back to the district Credits: Elana Knopp


For the last 22 years, Newark's Board of Education has served in an advisory capacity, with it's power to make decisions severely diminished by a state-appointed superintendent.

But earlier this month, the state's Board of Education voted unanimously to hand back control to Newark's elected Board of Education, a decision that has served to usher in a new era of pride, determination and autonomy.

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Newark Public Schools will now work in close partnership with the state, with a full transition plan expected within the next few months.

Newark Public Schools Superintendent Christopher Cerf -- likely the last state-appointed superintendent of Newark -- took the helm of the district in 2015 after what many call a disastrous run with former school superintendent Cami Anderson, an appointee of Governor Chris Christie who ultimately resigned eight months before her contract expired.

Appointed in 2011, Anderson alienated many parents with the implementation of universal enrollment reorganization plan One Newark, which resulted in school closings, mass firings and months of contentious public board meetings.

Cerf, a former New Jersey education commissioner, stepped into the role with the goal and directive of returning the district to full local control, expressing confidence at the time that he could restore self-governance to the district.

Two years later, Cerf has made good on that promise.

“In 1995, the state basically said that it had delegated power to Newark but it wasn’t getting it done, so we’re going to step in until you get it done,” Cerf told TAPintoNewark in an exclusive interview. “At the end of the day, the state has the constitutional duty to provide quality education to children. The state now has the confidence that the district will be able to discharge a free, quality public education.”

The school board was forced to relinquish its self-governance to the state in 1995 after an administrative law judge determined that too many district schools and students were failing, a decision that rocked the city.

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

In August, control was handed back to the district in two final categories.

District gains in PARCC scores, graduation rates and matriculation are a direct result of the foundation that has been set in place, Cerf said.

In addition, core standards such as a district-wide curriculum, improved student assessments, new evaluation standards for teachers, teacher retention and school choice have significantly helped in moving the district forward.

The evidence speaks for itself, said Cerf, as the district has realized significant improvements in PARCC results in both ELA (English/Language Arts) and Math, with NPS students improving by 2.7 percentage points in ELA and 2.8 percentage points in math overall, exceeding statewide gains in both subjects.

“Going back to 2010, if you compared Newark to 37 of the most comparable districts, we were barely in the first quartile,” Cerf said of test results. “Now we’re in the top quartile for reading and math.”

Final PARCC results will be revealed at tonight’s meeting of the board of education.

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

District gains have 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.

When the state took over more than two decades ago, said Cerf, just 54 percent of Newark’ students were graduating. Today, that rate has increased by 23 percentage points 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, with students receiving full scholarships to schools like Harvard, Princeton and Rutgers.

The district was one of the first in the state to adopt Common Core standards, an educational initiative that details what K–12 students should know in English/Language Arts and math by the end of each grade.

“Our curriculum is built around it,” Cerf said. “It’s all against the spine of a set of high expectations and the progression towards success. That is the central element of what we have done.”

Cerf calls the core expectations of the Common Core curriculum in math and reading “non-negotiable.”

“We are open to new methods and better standards. We value innovation and autonomy, but you have to make your case," he said, noting that these standards are a civil rights issue.

“We are committed as a nation to equality, but the reality is that if you’re born on the lower end of the economic spectrum in America, which disproportionately means a person of color, then that promise has not been fulfilled," Cerf said. "I don’t think that’s an accident. That’s a byproduct of the oppression of under-education to preserve the status quo.”

A feature of under-educating students, said Cerf, is holding students from different backgrounds to different standards.

“We’re now saying that there are certain competencies that align with graduating from high school,” he said. “We take that value very seriously in Newark.”

With a new teacher evaluation process put in place, the district has been doubling down to ensure that better teachers are staying, while ineffective teachers are being weeded out.

“The district has acted on that and built the leading educator evaluation system in the country,” Cerf said. "Ninety-five percent of highly-talented teachers have stayed."

Additionally, cost-saving measures have allowed more funds to be funneled directly to schools by renegotiating service contracts, selling off buildings that are no longer useful and substantial improvements in special education services.

“Our financial house is in order,” Cerf said. “We’ve made very significant reductions in overhead and cost while increasing money sent to schools.”

Cerf noted additional state funding.

“We’re grateful that the state was receptive to our argument that we needed additional funding,” he said.

With a firm commitment to providing a free, quality public education for all students, Cerf maintains that he is all about school choice and supports any institution that can successfully educate students.

“The central component to our philosophy is that we are indifferent to how a public school came into being,” he said. “If it is successfully educating children, we want to support it. We have completely taken politics out of who gets into what schools. We have neutral equity-based rules to allow parents to make the best decision for their kids.”

Forty-seven percent of K-12 applicants identified schools as first choice that are not closest to them, according to Cerf.

Applications to the district's magnet schools has also increased, as has charter school enrollment, up from 11 percent to 31 percent in the last several years alone.

“I am totally non-denominational on this,” Cerf said. “I ask that schools be free and accessible for all and not-for-profit. Within these constraints, I just want quality to prevail. It’s a little bit smug for policy-makers to decide what’s best for people’s children. If you’re a person of means, you have a lot of options. People make choices all the time—if they think a different school is better for their child then I support it, but not at the expense of other children.”

Cerf also hopes to clear up any politically-driven rhetoric attached to the public-charter debate.

“Charter schools have done well, and so have public schools,” he said. “Charter success has not come at the expense of public schools. If we look across all schools, each school has gone up, and in the aggregate, they have gone up a lot. It’s hard to break through the rhetoric. I am weary of people saying that parents want to do combat with parents from another sector. We should all celebrate any success.”

But it is an overarching theme of unity that Cerf believes has ultimately restored autonomy to the district.

“That’s why I think the state returned us to local control,” he said. “There is a sense of unity that I think has been lacking in past years. We have a unity of purpose in giving kids a free public quality education.”

Cerf lauded Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and the board of education.

“It was a real act of trust on the part of the mayor to allow this process to unfold,” Cerf noted. “He has done everything in his power to make sure that local control was returned to the district. Our board has also really worked hard to develop the lead and capacity to serve close to 56,000 children in the district.”

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