Transition Planner

‘It is so much work.’ Meet the state monitor trying to help Newark keep control of its schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Anzella King Nelms spoke to Newark parents and educators during a recent presentation organized by the Abbott Leadership Institute.

One day in 1995, state education officials arrived in Newark to begin the process of taking over the city school system, which had been deemed failing and mismanaged. Anzella King Nelms, a Newark schools official at the time, was there.

“I was in the superintendent’s conference room on the day that the state walked in to take over Newark,” Nelms said during a recent talk. “It was a day that our hearts dropped.”

More than two decades later, the state has finally ended its takeover. And it has appointed Nelms, a former Newark deputy superintendent, as its representative to help the district complete its return to local control.

“Today, I stand here representing the state,” Nelms told the audience. “How ‘bout that.”

On Feb. 1, Newark’s elected school board was restored to its full status as a board of education, following 22 years in a diminished advisory role. Many in Newark celebrated that day as a triumphant return to a locally run school system. But, as Nelms well knows, that was just the start of the return — and there is still potentially rocky terrain ahead.

In order to fully transition back to local control, the district and school board must abide by a two-year plan that sets milestones for them to meet and possible sanctions if they don’t. To help them stay on track, the plan calls for a “highly skilled professional” to act as a state monitor, compliance officer, and consultant rolled into one.

“This was essentially seen as a two-year insurance policy,” said Alan Sadovnik, an education and sociology professor at Rutgers University-Newark, referring to the transition plan and state monitor. “You simply could not give back total control until the district demonstrated that they were in fact able to operate themselves.”

The state chose Nelms as its highly skilled professional in Newark. But despite her crucial role, she’s mostly worked behind the scenes. (A state education department spokesman declined to make her available for an interview, saying people in her role don’t do interviews because “speaking to the press isn’t their core area of expertise.”)

However, Nelms gave a presentation on Saturday to some 40 parents, educators, and community activists at an event sponsored by the Abbott Leadership Institute, which offers trainings on school policy to the public. Chalkbeat attended the talk, during which Nelms gave an inside look at her efforts to help Newark get and keep control of its schools.

“Putting words on a paper and saying that you’re moving back to local control is one thing. Making it happen is another,” she said during the talk at Rutgers University-Newark. “And it is so much work.”

Each step of Newark’s release from state control is spelled out in its 73-page transition plan, which the state education department created last year with input from Newark district and city officials and after several public meetings. It details the many duties of the highly skilled professional, or HSP.

That person must help the district set its budget and establish strong relationships with the charter school and higher-education sectors, according to the plan. The HSP must also make sure the school board attends required trainings and does not overstep its authority, while mediating any conflicts that arise between the board and the superintendent, whom the board will appoint later this month from a list of candidates that includes the current interim superintendent, Robert Gregory. And the HSP must work with a new accountability office that will monitor the district’s progress, while flagging any possible ethics violations.

As a state monitor embedded in the district, the HSP could be seen as an occupying force. The state may have hoped to avoid that perception by appointing Nelms, who has roughly 40 years of experience as a Newark teacher, principal, and district official. It was a savvy choice, said Mary Bennett, another longtime Newark educator who was part of a committee that helped plan the return to local control.

“I don’t think they could have gotten someone with more understanding of the Newark community, the Newark context, and the Newark board of education than Ms. Nelms,” she said.

Since stepping into the role in February, Nelms has become intimately familiar with the transition plan, which she called a “precious document.”

At Saturday’s presentation, she held up a thick binder into which she’d sorted the plan into color-coded sections. She explained that at her cubicle at Newark Public Schools headquarters she has posted a blown-up copy of the state’s “accountability scorecard” — a measure of how faithfully Newark has carried out the plan, which stipulates, among other things, how the board should go about hiring a new superintendent and what trainings its members must undergo. (One requirement is a “review of past ethical lapses in the District.”)

If the district does not adhere to the plan, which also covers curriculum and budgeting, then it could face a series of escalating consequences. Those include extending the transition period, stepping up state oversight, or even reinstating state control — though that would be an extreme and unlikely move.

Many of the plan’s requirements center on the school board, which gained three new members and a new chairperson last month. As the board adjusts to its newly empowered role, Nelms’ job is to toggle between supervisor and coach.

So she observes their meetings and takes notes — “I record everything that I hear, see, and so on,” she said — arranging extra support in areas where she thinks board members need more guidance. One such area is recognizing the limits of their own authority, she said. (The board’s job is to hire a superintendent and sign off on policy decisions, while the superintendent is in charge of actually running the district.)

“There is a little misunderstanding here, so we’re working on that,” she said. She added, “They may make a misstep in thinking they have the power to do something, and we just have to carefully redirect them.”

If all goes well, the transition will officially end on Jan. 31, 2020. Then Newark’s schools will be fully under local control and Nelms’ job will be complete — a prospect she welcomes.

“I don’t want to have to continue in this position,” she told the audience on Saturday. “I want this district to totally be in your hands.”

day one

Meet Roger León, the homegrown educator charting a new course for Newark schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Newark's new superintendent, Roger León, at a graduation ceremony in June.

At the start of the school year in 1983, a student named Roger León sat with the other ninth-graders at Science High School waiting for the principal of Newark’s premier magnet school to arrive and welcome them.

Finally, León, the child of Cuban immigrants whose mother spoke only Spanish at home, grew tired of waiting for an adult to take charge.

“Roger, God bless him, got up and started the whole meeting,” said Christine Taylor, the president of Newark’s principals union, who heard the story from a teacher who was present that day.

After that, León became a star of the school’s famed debate team, then a debate coach, a classroom teacher, a principal, a high-ranking administrator within the system’s central office, and, beginning July 1, superintendent of the Newark school system with its 36,000 students and roughly $1 billion budget. It’s the role he seems to have been preparing for his entire life.

“Roger wanted to be the superintendent when he came out of the womb,” Taylor said.

León, who is 49, is assuming the post at a historic moment. Earlier this year, the state concluded its decades-long takeover of the district, leaving behind a higher-performing school system but also a community that is exhausted — some say traumatized — by outsiders promising transformative change. It’s a transition that districts from New Orleans to Paterson are navigating as states hand back control to local school boards that are, in theory at least, attuned to their communities’ needs and accountable to voters.

In May, Newark’s elected school board chose León to become the new superintendent — the first time that board members, rather than state overseers, have made that decision in more than 20 years.

In León, the board found the ultimate insider: A lifelong Newarker who has attended and worked in the city’s public schools his entire life — even during college, when he became a substitute teacher at his former high school. Now, it falls on him to prove that a locally led district can innovate and achieve at high levels, while partnering with the community and eschewing the corruption that helped trigger the state takeover — to make Newark “a beacon of light and hope for our urban districts,” as León has promised.

But even before officially starting Monday, León already got a taste of how hard that will be.

On a Friday afternoon in June, he sent word to 31 district employees — including some top officials hired by the past superintendent — that they could resign or be fired. The move was hailed by some of León’s many supporters as a necessary housecleaning. But critics were disturbed by the swiftness and severity of the cuts, which included several lower-level administrators with ties to León’s predecessors, raising questions about whether the overhaul was about score-settling, not just reorganizing.

The shake-up also exposed the complicated dynamic between León and the school board, where some members had supported a different candidate for superintendent before agreeing to vote unanimously for León. Last week, in a display of their new authority, some members shot down a few of León’s cabinet picks and blocked him from firing several of the 31 staffers.

Now, as León shakes off that setback and steps officially into his new role as superintendent, he is expected to announce his vision and 100-day plan. Supporters of the city’s charter schools, some of whom fear a frostier relationship with León than his predecessors, will be watching closely, along with local business and philanthropic leaders who worry about the district backsliding academically or succumbing to politics. Just as vigilant will be the community activists who expect León to reject the tactics of the self-described reformers under state control who closed troubled schools and encouraged the growth of charters, and the families counting on Newark’s native son to take the district to new heights.

“There are very high expectations,” said Wilhelmina Holder, a longtime Newark activist and fan of León. “They expect him to be superman.”

From ‘underdog’ to homegrown leader

León’s life has been defined by Newark, where he was born after his parents arrived from Cuba in 1966.

“It is the only city that I know, and it is the only city that I love,” he said at a graduation ceremony in June.

He and his three older sisters were raised by their mother in the Ironbound neighborhood, which is home to many Spanish and Portuguese-speaking immigrants. He attended the elementary school around the corner from his house, Hawkins Street School, where he would later return to teach fifth grade.

At Science High School, he joined the renowned debate team. As a senior, he helped defeat the team from affluent Princeton High School to win the state championships. He saw himself not just as a competitor but also as an ambassador for his city, said Jonathan Alston, León’s former teammate who now coaches debate at the renamed Science Park High School.

“He always knew that we were the underdogs,” Alston said. “That people would hear the name Newark and think negative things.”

León coached the Science High debate team for eight years before becoming a teacher and, when he was just 28 years old, the principal of Horton Street School in Newark’s largely Hispanic North Ward. In 2001, after helping to revamp that school, he was transferred to University High School, an underperforming magnet school in the predominantly black South Ward.

At University, he added 19 Advanced Placement courses in everything from Latin to sociology to women’s studies, while extending the school’s hours and offering Saturday classes.

On the school intercom most mornings, he quoted from an inspirational poem about teaching called “The Star Polisher,” telling students that they were “stars” and faculty that their job was to make students “shine.”

“Every child’s a genius,” León told Chalkbeat in an interview earlier this year, pointing out the star-shaped lapel pin he still wears in honor of that poem. “It’s the responsibility of every adult who interacts with them to prove that to the student.”

León is beloved by many of his former students. They recall how he bought them dinner when they stayed late rehearsing a school play, or rewarded their good grades with trips to Broadway musicals.

John Brown, who graduated in 2005, said León was also a fierce advocate for his students. When the staff at a local hospital would not permit the teenager to visit his mother in the emergency room, León drove Brown back to the hospital and demanded that he be allowed in.

“He went off on everyone in the ER from the doctor to the nurses to the security guard,” Brown said. “Next thing I know, I was back there with my mother.”

But as much as León supported his students, he could also be uncompromising. He occasionally kicked out students who violated the rules, according to Noelle Jordan, who graduated in 2007.

“He didn’t take any mess,” she said.

He was similarly demanding of his staff. Former colleagues said he made it clear to teachers when they weren’t meeting his expectations. If they continued to underperform, he would get them to leave.

“He develops people; he gives them an opportunity to fail forward,” said Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School. “But if you’re not cutting it, and you’re not doing right by kids, then it’s an easy decision for him.”

A long climb to the top

León’s ascension to schools chief has been long in the making.

Since 2007, he has served as an assistant superintendent under four consecutive state-appointed superintendents and one interim chief — a testament to his deep knowledge of the district, as well as his political survival skills.

During that time, he worked closely with the community. He met regularly with parent groups and enlisted clergy members, university officials, and school leaders to help rewrite district policies, which included raising the district’s graduation requirements and making report cards easier to read.

He also developed a reputation as a taskmaster, with flashes of a hot temper, according to former colleagues. Working from his office late into the night, he issued directives and demanded compliance. One former principal said that when she insisted on sticking with the summer reading books her school always used, rather than switching to new ones ordered by the district, León threatened to write up the principal and transfer the head of her English department to another school.

“Roger could make your life very miserable if he chooses to,” the former principal said.

León told Chalkbeat that schools were required to follow the district’s summer reading list, but could add to it if they chose.

Even as León fully immersed himself in his role as assistant superintendent, he kept his sights on his dream job.

“He always used to say, ‘I’m going to be superintendent one day,’” said Kathy DiChiara, a former administrator who worked in the district’s central office at the same time as León. (She was also his calculus teacher at Science High School, where she recalled his “tremendous self-confidence.”)

In 2015, the school board, which only had advisory powers then, voted for León to become superintendent. But the state ignored its recommendation and appointed Christopher Cerf, who kept León in his administration but largely sidelined him, leaving León with tasks — such as writing proclamations to honor exceptional students — that were detached from district policy.

But his fortunes changed after Cerf stepped down in February. In the race to replace him, León beat out two applicants who have led large urban districts, as well as Newark’s interim superintendent, A. Robert Gregory.

León got some help from his longtime supporter, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, who intervened in the selection process by pressuring the state education commissioner to replace a member of the search committee and revise the selection rules. But with the Newark school board making the choice this year, rather than officials in Trenton, he also benefited from his popularity among parent leaders, educators, and activists across the city.

“Roger’s like a rock star,” said Charles Love, a former parent organizer and school-board candidate. “He’s been in all the rooms.”

In the five weeks since his selection, León has been meeting with parents and activists, religious leaders, and labor officials — a way of shoring up support and workshopping policy ideas. On Wednesday, he assured charter school leaders that he does not plan to boot their schools from the district’s enrollment system, according to a person briefed on the meeting, despite calls to do so from critics who say the joint district-charter admissions system was designed to funnel students into charter schools.

Yet León has avoided meeting individually with the district’s top officials, who had hoped to brief him on their work but have mostly been unable to get his ear, according to two district employees. Several of those officials were among the 31 León sought to force out, which they learned through intermediaries or emails; León did not inform them himself.

In an emailed response, León said he held a meeting with the entire leadership team on May 30, received reports in June about each department’s planned work for the coming school year, and held follow-up meetings as necessary.

Meanwhile, León has been looking forward to the day when he, “a little boy from the ‘hood,” will take charge of New Jersey’s largest school district, as he told the graduates of KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy at their June commencement ceremony.

Speaking to the charter school graduates in a hotel ballroom just a few blocks from Newark Public Schools headquarters, León said he understood their nervousness as they, like him, embarked on a momentous journey. He insisted that they need not fear failure because they are up to the challenges ahead — and because, “We are in Newark, New Jersey, my people, and that is not in our vocabulary,” he said to cheers.

Instead, he suggested, what is keeping him up at night is the awesome power over children’s lives that he is about to inherit.

“We are scared,” he went on, “because of what we are about to do, and how profound its impact will be.”

behind the scenes

‘It may not bode well.’ State lawmaker intervened in Newark’s superintendent search, its first under local control

PHOTO: Newark Press Information Office
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz at a groundbreaking in January with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka (center).

Newark’s recent search for a new superintendent was designed to be free from political interference. Then a state lawmaker got involved.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, a Newark native and one of the city’s North Ward powerbrokers, pressured state officials to remove a state-appointed member of the superintendent search committee, according to a person with direct knowledge of the request. The member was removed and replaced with someone with North Ward connections.

Later, after the search committee chose three finalists, as required by state guidelines, Ruiz called the state education commissioner to demand that a fourth superintendent candidate be added to the list, according to a person told about the call. The chair of the Newark school board, who also has North Ward political ties, made the same request in an email. In response, the commissioner agreed to amend the state guidelines, intended to safeguard against meddling, to allow a fourth candidate.

A few weeks later, the board voted for the new superintendent: Roger León, a longtime Newark educator and administrator backed by Ruiz.

“Congratulations to Roger Leon on his appointment as the Superintendent for Newark Public Schools,” Ruiz wrote on Facebook. “His life’s work has been dedicated to our children.”

The board’s vote last month was an historic occasion — the first time it chose the city’s schools chief since the 1990s, when the state seized control of the district due to corruption and poor performance. Because of the significance of the superintendent selection, both practically and symbolically, state officials included step-by-step instructions for the search in the plan they created to guide the district’s transition back to local control of the schools.

But Ruiz’s backchannel involvement in the process shows how easily those guardrails were cleared as people who weren’t technically part of the search sought to influence its outcome.

“While politics is always a part of urban education, you set up rules to minimize the effect — particularly of elected officials,” said Alan Sadovnik, a professor of education and sociology at Rutgers University-Newark.

He said he saw no evidence the political involvement in this case was based on “corrupt intent.” Still, he added, “It may not bode well if at the very outset, when the whole world is watching, when you’re moving back to local control, the rules are not followed.”

State education department spokesman Michael Yaple did not answer questions about Ruiz’s involvement in the selection process. But he disputed that the education commissioner replaced a committee member, saying that only one person was ever “formally appointed” — appearing to contradict a statement by the state-appointed superintendent in December.

Through a spokeswoman, Ruiz declined to answer any questions about her role in the search.

“The senator is not going to comment on the superintendent search,” the spokeswoman, Jen Sweet, said. “The search is over, and she would like to focus on the future of Newark schools.”

In December, the state education department released a two-year plan that details the steps the district must take to regain full authority over its schools. One requirement was that the board hire a private firm to conduct a national search for superintendent candidates, who would then be screened by a seven-member search committee. The committee was to include three board members, three civic leaders, and one state appointee.

At the board’s public meeting on December 19, then-Superintendent Christopher Cerf said he had urged the state education commissioner to appoint a Newark educator to the committee. Then he announced that the state had heeded his advice: Carolyn Granato, a former Newark principal who currently heads up the district’s special-education office, was the state’s pick.

“She’s the seventh person on the selection committee,” Cerf said.

Yaple, the education department spokesman, said that Granato was never “formally appointed.” He did not immediately respond to an email asking him to explain Cerf’s public statement.

Whether or not Granato was “formally” the state’s pick, she did not last long. Soon after Cerf’s announcement, Ruiz called the state education commissioner at the time, Kimberley Harrington, and insisted that Granato be replaced, according to the person with direct knowledge of the request, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the conversation.

“She aggressively demanded that the former commissioner change [Granato] out,” the person said.

Harrington, who did not respond to requests for comment, declined to choose a new committee member, the person said. But Harrington herself was on the way out.

On Jan. 29, Lamont Repollet became acting commissioner. Chosen by newly elected Gov. Phil Murphy, Repollet was confirmed on Thursday by the state senate — where Ruiz, as the education committee chair, holds considerable sway.

Soon after taking over, Repollet replaced Granato with Jennifer Carrillo-Perez, a real estate attorney who was on the Newark school board in the early 2000s and is currently an Essex County Schools of Technology board member.

Carrillo-Perez is also connected to North Ward politics. She contributed to North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr.’s campaign in 2011, according to election records, and was a co-chair of an event in April for Ramos’ reelection campaign, according to a post on the councilman’s Facebook page. (Ruiz was listed as a chair of that campaign event.)

Carrillo-Perez did not respond to emailed questions.

In late April, the search committee — with Carrillo-Perez as its state-appointed member — selected three finalists to present to the school board. However, some of the members felt that a strong candidate had been left off the shortlist.

At that point, Ruiz intervened. She contacted Repollet directly to ask that he amend the transition plan to allow for four candidates, according to the person who was told about the call and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Around the same time, search committee member and school board chair Josephine Garcia also asked Repollet to allow a fourth candidate — despite the objections of some of her fellow committee members who wanted to stick with the three candidates whom the group had already agreed to, in accordance with state guidelines, as Chalkbeat has previously reported.

Garcia also has deep North Ward ties. Councilman Ramos backed her in last year’s school-board election, and she was listed as a co-chair of the same April campaign event for Ramos that Carrillo-Perez and Ruiz participated in.

Repollet granted their request. On April 27, he sent Garcia a letter saying he would allow four candidates “in order to provider greater assistance to the district in finding” the right person.

Search committee members have refused to say who among the candidates was the fourth added to the shortlist. But on May 22, after León narrowly won a closed-door poll, all nine board members agreed to publicly vote for León.

The next day, Garcia posted the news of León’s selection on Facebook, adding, “Long overdue.”

Update: This story was updated to reflect that the state senate confirmed Lamont Repollet as education commissioner on Thursday.