MONTCLAIR, NJ - Montclair resident Dale Russakoff was interviewed at the Montclair Public Library on Sunday by Kate Zernike, National Education Correspondent for the New York Times to discuss education reform in the Newark Public Schools.
The centralized focus of discussion was Russakoff’s book, “The Prize”, lauded by the New York Times as “one of the most important books to come along on education in years.”
Therein Russakoff reports on education reforms born of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100,000,000 donation to the Newark Public School system back in 2010.
Russakoff claimed that she set out to write the book because she saw Newark as an iconic city in America struggling in the aftermath of white middle class flight to suburbs.
After the pledge, she reflected saying, “I was electrified to see a young billionaire saying he wanted to give $100,000,000 and a democratic mayor with a republican governor wanting to use it to transform education.”
Russakoff then began to trace the ideas down to the level of the lives the money was meant to change.
Zernike asked if there was a lesson learned and what might have changed the outcome. Russakoff replied, “The most important thing is to get resources into classrooms. I witnessed one of the charter schools getting more resources to classrooms, it was an example of what money used in the right way could do for kids.” She went on to entail the differences of having more teacher aides in a struggling school could represent for the youngest learners in a school.
Russakoff added that poverty is a huge fact of life in cities and that the consequences of poverty are felt in the classroom every day.
When Zernike asked Russakoff what prevents teachers from doing their jobs, one example cited by the author was a classroom in which 15 of 26 children had DYFS (DCCP) cases, and the district was unable to provide a second aide in the classroom until the 8th month of school.
Following the thread of money being able to remedy certain situations, Zernike followed up asking why the money couldn’t make it to the classrooms. Although specific reasons were not necessarily cited, Russakoff said it was “not about union wages but about layers of expense in the district attributed to custodial services. A huge amount of money at that level should be untangled.” She also said governors, and regulatory policies would have to address civil service.
The discussion continued until Zernike asked if this book should serve as a cautionary tale. Russakoff advised that education reform couldn’t be done to a city but instead with a city. She described the challenge of finding committed people in the community at a grass roots level.
Not wanting to vilify anyone in particular, Russakoff added, “I didn’t want to have a dog in that fight”.
A question arose about the accountability of how money was to be spent. Russakoff said that in many cases philanthropists either trusted Cory Booker to spend it well or some thought it went to buying out bad teachers. “There was no buyout. The money was raised for that purpose but it is not going to happen. Yet Governor Christie, in New Hampshire, said the other day that it did happen.” That statement was met with a mixture of awe and notably disappointed laughter.
The author noted several initiatives that did not come to fruition. One such example was a fund for kids coming back from being incarcerated, to go back to school.
An audience member said, “It sounds like there were a lot of smart people with no desire to collaborate. Did you find individuals who were willing to collaborate?” Russakoff stated examples of neighborhood charter schools that invited district schools to their professional development seminars.
A Newark public school teacher named Andrea H. who read the book was in attendance. She said, “We (teachers) all devoured the book. Some of us were familiar with some of the teachers mentioned in the book. We compared notes and became very angry because the story is accurate.”
In response to whether she felt charter schools were the best way to make use of donated dollars, she replied, “Our school decided this week to apply for a charter. The school needs money. They have a vision. Without money they can’t achieve it.” When asked about the allocation of the $100,000,000 that Zuckerberg donated, Andrea H. shook her head and said, “It just breaks my heart. It really does.”
Deputy Mayor Bob Russo spoke from the audience saying, “The teachers union was the reform movement. We know Newark needs changes. How do I become accepted by reformers while being a teacher’s union leader and seen as a roadblock to change?”
Russakoff responded saying that was “part of the polarization debate”. She added, “I think leadership in school districts can all have a lot to contribute to the discussion as a partner. I also feel it is true what you said …Governor Christie has made efforts to demonize the teacher’s union …it is demoralizing.”
Princess Williams, a teacher often mentioned in The Prize raised her hand. She told the audience, “As a Kindergarten teacher my experience was very different in a district school compared to a charter school. Many of my students in district schools had special needs but we weren’t provided with adequate resources or professional development. Whereas this year I teach in an inclusion classroom and the amount of support is overwhelming.”
She went on to ask, "...based on what has been learned, what is the call to action?"
To which, Russakoff replied, “My call to action is for people to give everything they have to the cause of trying to figure out how to get these resources to the classrooms. It is a political effort, financial effort and academic effort. Unions need to make this a priority.”
Russo elaborated saying, “Teachers and the union are seen as the enemy. The governor and the present climate of the country feel the teachers and the union are the problem. They want to vilify the union.”
When asked if he felt the book addressed that issue, he said, “The book is good. It is balanced. It’s fair.” He added, “It points out the flaws of Zuckerberg’s plan. You don’t just throw money at the city.” He added further discussion on the issue of keeping teachers on board, saying, “The reason we want security is for politicians’ not to move us around and put their friends in.”
Russo added that he felt charter schools were getting better students. He continued, “I am not against charter schools but they can’t be seen as a solution. Don’t take away from the public schools. The public schools are not the enemy.”
At the conclusion of the meeting an audience member, who declined to be identified, had read the book and stated that she felt more solutions should be offered. She said, “I was unhappy with the description of the situation without offering a solution. When Martin Luther King was begging to have justice happen in this country, Lyndon Johnson got people to collaborate, there was no collaboration in this. I mean… it’s criminal. It really is criminal.”