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When an outsider arrives to shake up a school system, a tightrope walk follows

What could $100 million do for an urban school district plagued by low performance, a slow-moving bureaucracy, and deep student poverty? That’s what Newark set out to learn in 2010, when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg pledged that sum to the small city’s schools. Journalist Dale Russakoff followed the twists and turns of that process and in “The Prize,” out this week, she documents the politics, policy shifts, and unfulfilled promises of the $100 million gift.

This excerpt comes from early in superintendent Cami Anderson’s tenure, which began after officials couldn’t agree on a hire and former New York State Education Commissioner John King turned the job down, and illustrates the characteristics of urban education that she hoped to upend in Newark as well as the consequences of that upending. Many of those consequences — including intense community opposition to school closures and the concentration of especially high-needs students in certain district schools — have unfolded in New York City as well. Read to the end for a chance to win your own copy of Russakoff’s book.

The Newark Public Schools has its headquarters in a drab, ten-story downtown office building occupied mostly by state agencies. The school district fills the top three floors, crowned by the superintendent’s suite and a photo gallery of its many occupants stretching back to 1855. The early leaders sport high collars, bushy mustaches, and wire-rimmed glasses. Over time, styles change, but through 118 years and eleven superintendents, two things remain constant: everyone in the photographs is white, and everyone is male.


Then, in 1973, comes a line of demarcation — when Newark’s first black mayor, Kenneth Gibson, appointed his first superintendent — and for the next thirty-eight years, everyone is black — five men and two women. Then, in 2011, comes Cami Anderson — white, blond, and much younger than the others — jarringly out of sync with everyone before her. And while every superintendent for 156 years gazes out from a formal portrait, Anderson stands against a blank wall, smiling, her hair slightly mussed, as if she had paused momentarily for a snapshot while attending to something else. The camera angle is tight, so her face fills the frame, exaggerating the anomalies. Anderson had arrived in Newark as a life-sized challenge to the status quo.

She made this clear when, early on, she refused to hire the girlfriend of one city councilman and fired the cousin of another one. “The trading post is closed,” as she put it. Her image as an agent of change was evident even in the way she introduced herself.

“Hi, I’m Cami,” she said to parents, principals, and teachers, even to students, displaying a lack of deference to local custom. All adults in the schools — from janitors to superintendents — addressed each other as Mr. or Mrs. or Dr., a veneer of respectfulness undisturbed by the district’s tarnished history. “Hi, I’m Cami,” Anderson greeted a middle-aged African American male teacher in a summer school classroom early in her tenure. “Okay if I just walk around?” He nodded assent.

Dressed in khaki slacks and a peach-colored blouse, peace symbols swinging from her earrings, her blond hair in a ponytail, Anderson headed like a bullet train for the very back of the room, where several young men were laughing loudly, basically ignoring three plastic boxes of dirt on a lab table in front of them. They were attending summer school at Science Park High School, the elite magnet school during the rest of the year. The state-of-the-art science lab was crowded and cacophonous, with thirty-five students squeezed around lab tables. All had failed freshman earth science and had to pass it in order to get back on track to graduate. On the whiteboard, the subject of the unit was identified as wetlands.

“Hi, I’m Cami,” Anderson said to the students at the back table. “Can you guys tell me what you’re doing?”

They clearly had no idea who she was or what she was doing there.

“No,” one boy shot back, as if telling her to bug off. Anderson squared her shoulders, authority figure–style, and turned to the boy next to him, who snapped to attention. With a nod toward the plastic containers, he said respectfully, “This is a wetland.”

“Why are you making a wetland?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he said.

“What did you guys do before today?”

He thought for a while. “This,” he answered, again nodding at the dirt.

Just then another boy wandered by, wearing a T-shirt that said on the front, “How to Keep an Idiot Busy. (See back.)” The back had the same message, ending, “See front.”

Anderson asked the teacher how he determined if students were grasping what he taught and how he adjusted his approach to reach those who didn’t. He gave a rambling answer, mentioning quizzes and interim assessments, then blamed the students. “It’s tough to do environmental science in urban districts,” he said. She told him that the boys at the back table didn’t understand the lesson. In their case, he had another excuse: “They’re special ed.”

Needless to say, these were the wrong answers, signs of a mentality Anderson had been crusading to purge from education since witnessing its crushing effect on her adopted siblings. Anderson understood only too well that it was hard to teach kids who were accustomed to failing, who lived in poverty, who lost friends to violence, whose fathers abandoned them, who burned with anger, who struggled with learning disabilities — but that’s what made teachers so vitally important. If a teacher didn’t expect his students to succeed, if he saw them as losers and gave up on them, what chance did they have to break the mindset of failure that had landed them in summer school in the first place?

Next, Anderson went into a geometry class. There were only eighteen students, almost all girls. They were working intently in groups, calculating the altitude of a rhombus. Their teacher, a young African American woman with six years of experience, radiated competence and purpose, moving throughout the room, checking everyone’s progress. These students had not failed anything — ever. Rather, they were in summer school to get ahead. “I wanted to spend my summer doing something useful,” a girl who attended Arts High School, a selective magnet, told Anderson. “I didn’t want to have zero period,” said a girl from Technology High, another magnet, referring to classes scheduled before the regular school day began. “So I decided to knock it out of the box right now.” Anderson asked the teacher where she taught during the school year. She named one of the most troubled high schools in Newark, adding quickly that she hoped to transfer soon to a selective magnet. This was another factor in the failure equation. Teaching the best students was a reward, sought by almost everyone in education. Talented teachers won the honor, and struggling students got the leftovers.

“Well, that was instructive!” Anderson declared as she walked back to the school office with Edwin Mendez, a vice principal during the school year who supervised multiple summer school sites. She asked for a candid explanation of how the system worked: How did these students and teachers end up here? Mendez outlined a bizarre bureaucratic procedure in which all Newark schools sent lists of failing students to the district at the end of the regular school year, only three days before summer school began. The roster sent to each summer school site was invariably inaccurate — Science Park High had 2,400 students on its summer roster, of whom only 1,176 actually enrolled. Another high school had 1,860, but only 900 showed up. Moreover, he said, many students were incorrectly assigned to classes they had passed, not those they had failed. The reason? “Somebody didn’t do their job,” said Mendez, using a generic explanation in Newark for why systems failed.

As for the teachers, Mendez explained, the district office conducted a “mass posting” of all available summer school jobs, everyone applied at once, and the best teachers got the advanced classes, because those required a higher level of academic rigor. The weak teachers got the classes — and the students — no one else wanted.

“That’s totally backwards,” Anderson declared. “The kids who failed the first time around need more rigor. We need the strongest teachers with the weakest students.”

West Side High School in Newark

West Side High School in Newark.

Jim Henderson/Creative Commons

She took notes on everything Mendez said, thanked him for his candor, then headed off to observe kindergarten through eighth grade at Speedway School, about two miles away.

“Hi, I’m Cami,” she said jauntily to the Speedway security guard.

The older African American woman looked over her glasses at Anderson and responded without expression, “I’m Ms. Grimsley.”

Cami Anderson grew up in “lily white” Manhattan Beach, California, as her mother described it, and attended the University of California at Berkeley. But nothing about her upbringing was conventional.

She was the second child of Sheila and Parker Anderson, a child welfare advocate and the community development director for Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley. Sheila Anderson managed a large child welfare agency in Los Angeles and occasionally brought into her home severely abused and neglected children who were difficult to place. In some cases, they stayed. Beginning when Cami was a year old, her parents adopted nine children in ten years, later having another biological child, bringing the total to twelve. Cami’s place in the birth order changed seven times, her mother said.

The Andersons raised their large family in a three-bedroom, one-bathroom house. One adopted child was born addicted to heroin and struggled with physical and emotional pain. Another had been hospitalized from severe physical, sexual, and chemical abuse. Two were orphans from Vietnam, each born to an African American GI and a Vietnamese woman. Everyone had laundry duty, dinner duty, and other jobs, all assigned at Sunday family meetings. Those with afterschool activities were responsible for arranging their own rides. Cami Anderson said she never felt put upon. “It was just who we were.”

All of the children went together to school, where the adopted siblings were among the only students of color. Anderson recalled being upset as early as elementary school that teachers found some of her siblings unmanageable and punished them. At home, her mother tapped their strengths, she said, by breaking tasks down to size and setting clear expectations. From an early age, her mother recalled, Cami was her siblings’ defender. “Cami understood them and wanted to explain to the rest of the world how much they’d been through,” Sheila Anderson said. “She became the interpreter.”

Her distinctive personality emerged in middle school. Anderson became passionate about acting and theater through classes at Santa Monica Playhouse, where its founder and director, Evelyn Rudie, used improvisational exercises to push children to tap their inner selves. Rudie then created characters in plays and musicals that allowed young actors to express onstage who they really were. “Cami was always cast as the hardass,” recalled Rebecca Donner, her writer friend, who met Anderson at the playhouse the summer after sixth grade and has remained close ever since. “She played the person from the wrong side of the tracks, very assertive and tough, who wouldn’t let anyone push her around.”

Anderson’s breakout role came at age eleven, when she starred in a musical as a fearless cowgirl defending her town against three rough, leering bad guys. While belting out a song, “You’ve Got Another Think Coming,” swinging the microphone cord like a lasso, she slugged her way across the stage, leaving all three bullies unconscious — one draped over a ladder, another stuffed in a whiskey barrel, the third sprawled on the floor. The curtain fell with the loudmouthed little blonde standing alone and triumphant in her shiny red cowboy boots, having single-handedly saved the day. It was, Donner recalled, “a show-stopper.”

As an educator, Anderson similarly styled herself as lone champion of the defenseless, speaker of inconvenient truths. In New York City, under Klein, she was senior superintendent for five years, responsible for 30,000 students in alternative high schools and 60,000 more in prison, drug treatment and teen pregnancy programs, suspension centers, GED programs, career and technical training, and adult education centers. The position gave her critical distance on aspects of Klein’s reform agenda, particularly charter schools. As Klein championed the expansion of charters, Anderson saw no benefits reaching her own students. She told of trying in vain to find a charter school that would serve incarcerated students, blending social services and no-excuses academics.

a Rafflecopter giveawayIn Newark, it quickly emerged that while Anderson had all the credentials valued by the reform movement, she differed with her bosses on the role of charter schools in urban districts. She pointed out that charters in Newark served a smaller proportion than the district schools of children who lived in extreme poverty, had learning disabilities, or struggled to speak English. Moreover, she had the same concerns Dominique Lee of BRICK Avon expressed about charters disproportionately attracting parents she called the “choosers” — those with time to navigate the charter lotteries and to foster a striving attitude at home. Charters were under the control of Cerf, not Anderson. They drew from the same student population as the school district, but the state alone decided whether and how much they would expand and whether to close those that performed poorly. The local superintendent’s only role was to react. In cities like Newark, where the overall student population was static, growth for charters meant shrinkage for the district. Newark charters now were growing at a pace to enroll forty percent of children in five years, leaving the district with sixty percent — the neediest sixty percent, according to Anderson. Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg had searched the country for a leader of education reform in Newark, but in practice, Newark had two school systems and she governed only one of them. Anderson pointed out that she was expected to turn Newark’s public schools into a national model, yet as children left for charters — and state funds followed them — she would be continually closing schools and dismissing teachers, social workers, and guidance counselors. And because of the state’s seniority rules, the most junior teachers would go first, without regard to merit. Anderson called this “the lifeboat theory of education reform,” arguing that it could leave a majority of children to sink on the big ship. “Your theories of change are on a collision course,” she told Cerf and Booker. “I told the governor I did not come here to shuffle the deck chairs on the Titanic,” she said. “I did not come here to phase the district out.”

Surprisingly, Cerf, Booker, and Christie had no plan for ensuring a stable learning environment for children in district schools as they advocated aggressive expansion of charters. They couldn’t answer Anderson’s questions: How many district schools will have to close? Where will displaced children go if there is no longer a school within walking distance? (With its long history of neighborhood schools, Newark did not provide school busing.) How will district teachers address an increasing concentration of children with emotional and learning challenges? Had anyone calculated a sustainable size for a diminished Newark district? In shaking up the bureaucracy, reformers said often that they were prioritizing children’s education over adult jobs. But in their zeal to disrupt the old, failed system, many of them neglected to acknowledge the disruption they were going to cause in the lives of tens of thousands of children.

Excerpted from THE PRIZE: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? by Dale Russakoff. Copyright © 2015 by Dale Russakoff. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.