Newark, NJ—The potential candidates for superintendent of Newark Public Schools presented their visions for the district for the first time at a public forum held Friday at Science Park High School.

This is a historic moment for the city as this new superintendent will take the helm of the district for the as the first superintendent since Newark regained control of its schools after more than two decades under state control.

The packed auditorium listened intently as each of the four final candidates spoke.

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Although there was not a question and answer period the audience made their voices known by cheering for both interim Newark Superintendent Robert Gregory and Newark Assistant Superintendent Robert Leon.

While the Newark natives had home field advantage the other two candidates tried to make their mark and present a hopeful future for the city’s schools. 

Sito Narcisse, who serves as the chief of schools for Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee, spoke first at the public forum. He is second in command of the school system and supervises all 169 schools including traditional public schools as well as charter and specialty schools.

“Community matters,” said Narcisse, a son of Haitian immigrants who grew up as an English Language learner. “You cannot do anything without the community.”

Narcisse obtained a degree from Kennesaw State University in Georgia and graduated with a degree in degree in French and pursued a master’s degree from Vanderbilt University in Secondary Education. Narcisse started out as a French teacher and his doctoral studies led him to the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned a doctorate in educational administration and policy studies and leadership.

Narcisse said if he became superintendent of Newark he would work towards increasing parent engagement within all wards of the city.

“If I’m the superintendent of Newark one of the things I can assure you is that family involvement will be very, very important,” said Narcisse. “And the reason why is because you cannot do this work without parents. And a part of doing that work is trying to figure out and make sure that you are partner with people in the community to make sure that you can get parents to come to the schools, make sure that parents know what are the policies that principals are doing and also help them with the decision-making process… to be able to engage in that work.”

Narcisse said if hired he and his wife would live in Newark and continuously stressed the importance of having all stakeholders including parents, students and teachers involved in policy and decision making with the district.

“Another part that I would tell you is really important in community matters is making sure that we are able to choose people from the city to be able to work in our system, so each ward can actually see someone from their community helping to guide the work,” said Narcisse.

Andres Alonso, graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia University, and earned a law degree and a doctorate in education from Harvard University. He changed course from practicing corporate law to becoming an educator.

“There is also this exhilarating possibility to do better for students and for our community,” Alonso said. “I want to be useful before I am anything else.”

Alonso said he is Cuban American and did not speak English initially. He helped develope a bi-lingual curriculum for the city of Newark.

“That fact matters because I went to schools in extraordinary poverty but where education was cherished,” he said.

Uncertain of what he wanted to do and whether he wanted to remain in his legal profession, Alonso decided to change to working in education. He began to teach in the city of Newark, where he worked for 12 years.

From 1987 to 1998, Andres taught English language learners at the Samuel L. Berliner School, a center school for classified emotionally disturbed adolescents in the Central Ward, and Peshine Avenue Elementary School, a k-8 school in the South Ward.

“The most striking thing about that school was the sense of ownership,” Alonso said. 

Alonso said he took legal custody of a young person who was once a student who did not have any other options and, from that time on, he supported choice because he said parents deserve options.

Alonso returned to Harvard to continue his studies and he served as chief of staff for teaching and learning and as deputy chancellor for teaching and learning at the New York City Department of Education, overseeing the educational mission of the nation’s largest district, and supervising more than one hundred local instructional superintendents and twelve hundred schools.

He also served as CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools. Since 2013, Alonso has served as professor of practice at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, where he teaches on urban district and school reform, helps steer the education doctorate in leadership degree program and, through Harvard, works with 12 of the largest urban school systems in the country to help them with problems and developing best practice.

Alonso said he dreamed of returning to Newark specifically to obtain this job. 

“This is the job I’ve always wanted,” said Alonso. “Newark changed my moral compass.”

“Communities need to believe in what happens in the process of change or else they will fight back to make sure things don’t change at all where it matters most which is the classroom,” said Alonso.

Alonso stressed the importance of governance and those in charge owning their responsibility to students.

“The work cannot be about remediation,” said Alonso. “The system has to be equitable. Somebody has to own what happens to those children. The work is incredibly hard, but it is doable. It will be about the kids of Newark.”

Gregory, a native of Newark, said his mother moved him from the city after elementary school in search of a quality middle school. After college, he returned to Newark and said he committed himself to ensuring no parent ever feels like they need to leave Newark to obtain a quality education for their child.

“I have even more conviction now than ever before that we can create a brighter future for our students,” said Gregory.

Gregory received his bachelor's degree in secondary education—social studies from West Chester University in Pennsylvania and a master's degree in educational leadership and management from Seton Hall University. He has worked in Newark Public Schools for more than 20 years.

“We are living through an age of innovation. A technological revolution,” said Gregory, adding that it can help close the gap between the haves and the have nots.

Gregory said if not for members of the community his career never turned into what it is and he noted how startled he was by the lack of black male role models in leadership positions in schools while he was growing up.

“I am standing on the shoulders of some phenomenal educators who came before me,” he said.

Robert was also the founding principal of American History High School in 2007. When founded, the school became the fifth magnet school in Newark and first of its kind in New Jersey.

As Principal, Gregory maintained a 94 percent or above graduation rate throughout his tenure, of which at least 90 percent of students gained admissions to and attended college. He served as assistant superintendent in Newark before becoming interim superintendent.

“We didn’t believe in the words at risk. We believed in our students,” said Gregory of his colleagues in Newark.

“No one rises to low expectations,” said Gregory, adding if surrounded by the adults who serve as proper educators and role models, students will excel. “We must keep our expectations high.”

Gregory stressed the importance of "inclusivity" in schools.  

Gregory said the city must invest in adults and “we must not ignore our students and their families” and that by raising expectations “we’ve seen important progress.”  

“Our parents and students are brilliant,” said Gregory, adding those voices need to be included in the educational process.

Gregory said teachers need to know their feedback matters and it paid attention to by administrators.

“We are reigniting the spirit of our teachers,” said Gregory, who said an event where teachers in the city will share best practices will be held in June.  “Teachers remain the backbone of American society.”

Gregory said fighting with unions no longer happens within the city.

“The future is here,” said Gregory. “We must move from admiring problems to solving them. We must invest in our people to get where we want to go.”

Gregory noted his institutional knowledge from working in Newark schools and how he has a unique insight as to what makes the district great and what problem areas exist.

“I will make sure your voices are front and center,” Gregory told the audience. “Our schools cannot remain the same and they must be re-imagined. The community schools model makes sense. Within the word community is unity.”

Gregory said that access to education leads to equity and it’s necessary whether students want to attend college or not that they must be able to obtain gainful employment within industries where they feel successful.

“I stand here tonight because I believe in Newark. I love this city,” said Gregory. “We must remain committed to transformation and not transactions.”

Gregory excitedly stated insuring all Newark students have access to the American dream.

“I have been preparing for my entire life for this moment to come,” Gregory said to loud applause from the audience.

León, assistant superintendent in Newark, was born and raised and continues to live in Newark. He has worked in NPS for 25 years.

León received applause from the audience before he even spoke Friday.  

He expressed gratitude to be standing on the stage of the high school he graduated from “In the hopes of realizing my dream in the only city I love.”

León lived in Newark and his is from Cuba. His parents divorced. He was raised by single mother who received welfare and he credited her with teaching him that if you earned an education, always listened to your teachers, worked hard, learned from your mistakes then you will succeed in life.  

“Your dreams manifest to reality,” León said, explaining his life philosophy inspired by his mother.

León earned his Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences at Rutgers University and his Master of Arts in Administration and Supervision from Montclair State University.

León received applause when he said he wants feedback from students and that if students obtain a proper education then “no weapon formed against them will prosper.”

León said he wanted to create partnerships within the community to help students, parents and teachers.

“I do believe when you improve one aspect of a school you can improve all aspects of a school,” said León. “I have a record of undeniable accomplishments of how high we will go. All of us.”

León taught, served as principal and as assistant superintendent in Newark, giving him experience at all levels of Newark Public School instruction.

“I taught my students to respect each other and always challenged them to be better,” said León. “Every class demonstrated academic excellence and growth. The bar was set high and raised higher. I know firsthand that our students can achieve great things.”

León said that experience matters and since Newark is changing both with redevelopment and regaining local control of the schools, the superintendent need to act as an “agent of change” and build partnerships.  

Leon said he wants Newark schools to be “a beacon of light and hope for our urban districts. I am humbled, blessed, prepared and poised for this opportunity.”

The process of hiring is ending as final interviews are being held this week and the search committee is wrapping up its process. District officials are hoping to hire the new superintendent by July.