NEWARK, NJ — After three years of surpassing expectations set forth by the New Jersey Department of Education’s monitoring system for bottom-performing schools, the Newark Board of Education is preparing to submit an application whose approval would finally restore total local control to the district. 

NJQSAC, the NJDOE’s monitoring and district self-evaluation system for public school districts, evaluates districts based on five key areas, or District Performance Reviews: governance, instruction, operations, personnel and finance. Newark Public Schools currently has control of all areas except program and instruction, for which NBOE voted to apply during Tuesday’s business meeting. 

The district’s historic 2017 takeback of school board governance from the state marked a new era for the school board, which for 20 years was permitted to serve only in an advisory capacity. A year prior, NJDOE returned local control in the area of personnel decisions to Newark and granted permission for the district to submit an equivalency waiver for program and instruction in 2019. NPS is now seeking to maintain control of its personnel operations and regain local control over the program and instruction category.

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Both equivalency waivers, if approved, would mean total local control for NPS until 2022. An equivalency approval for program and instruction would allow the district to measure growth and progress against itself rather than the hard data metrics assigned by the state, according to board member A’Dorian Murray-Thomas. 

“We’ve had significant growth over the years, and with this application, we will be able to actually get credit for the work that’s being done based on those growth metrics,” Murray-Thomas said. “We have exceeded what the state has expected in terms of indicators for program and instruction growth metrics.” 

The NJQSAC system was established in 2005 to ensure accountability in districts requiring state intervention. Educators have long decried the reporting mechanism as laborious and a poor measure of student achievement, citing that NJQSAC only measures metrics like graduation rates and state test scores. While the NJDOE revised its accountability system in 2018 to include metrics of student growth rather than hard data, districts across the state still find the requirements put an undue burden on staff.

Newark’s application to take back its instruction and programming signals a continued effort to steer NPS, which did not undergo a QSAC review for the fall of 2019, away from state intervention. 

Since the 2017 restoration of school board governance, NPS has worked closely under the guidance of state monitor Anzella King Nelms, who has rigorously prepared board members and staff for the final stretch in its journey to 100% local control. 

Rochonda Jackson, executive director of the Office of Policy, Planning, Evaluation and Testing, said that in the past, NJQSAC did not take into consideration Newark’s student performance growth and instead focused on isolated snapshots of proficiency levels, graduation rates and achievement on federal school-level metrics. The state-approved district-specific indicators when it granted waiver permission in 2016.

“In 2016, we created an application for an equivalency to the instruction and program section of the NJQSAC. The successful completion across all of those three years has allowed for our ability to be eligible for local control,” Jackson said in a presentation on Tuesday. “We believe that strategy has helped us to a very important point, and that is why we are making the same application again.”

The district’s QSAC scores for instruction and programming have fluctuated between 83% and 91% over the past three years, more than satisfying the state’s 80% passing threshold. Jackson said these scores are what determine whether the state needs to continue providing support.  

As the board prepares to cross the final finish line, board member Tave Padilla credits Nelms and her dedication to seeing Newark make a full transition to local control. 

“As a board member, it’s pretty historic. We’ve put in so much work to get control back, the state has issued specifics and we’ve complied with all that,” Padilla said. “It’s been a journey —it’s a new day, it’s a different day, and I think the community is starting to see that.”