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.”

Superintendent search

For the first time in a generation, Newark will pick its own schools chief. Meet the interim leader hoping to get the job.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

A. Robert Gregory, who became interim superintendent of the Newark school system in February, did not wait to shed the interim status before settling into the corner office reserved for superintendents.

He has adorned the walls with graduation pictures of him and his parents, awards he won during his nearly 20 years as a Newark teacher and principal, and a black-and-white photo of Muhammed Ali knocking out an opponent. On his desk he placed a well-worn copy of “Savage Inequalities,” whose inside cover contains an inscription his late father — himself a well-known Newark principal — had written when Gregory considered quitting during his second year of teaching: “Never give up on our people!”

“I’m very proud to be in this seat right now,” Gregory said during an interview last month in his office on the third floor of Newark Public Schools’ new downtown headquarters. “And I’m not trying to give it up.”

Newark regained authority over its schools this year after more than two decades of state control — making the next superintendent the first to be chosen locally in a generation. Whoever is selected will face the enormous task of forging a new path forward for New Jersey’s largest district, after wealthy outside donors and state-appointed leaders spent years reshaping its schools.

The city’s elected school board has until May 31 to hire a new superintendent. It has not yet announced the finalists of its national search, but Gregory is expected to be one of them. A Newark native with deep knowledge of its schools, he is considered a frontrunner — but one with some liabilities, who may be up against stiff competition.

Gregory is the handpicked successor of Christopher Cerf, the state-appointed superintendent who stepped down in February. Cerf and his predecessor, Cami Anderson, are associated with a series of controversial policies — closing low-performing schools, expanding the charter-school sector, trying to remove ineffective teachers — that were championed by so-called “education reformers” but fiercely opposed by the city teachers union and many Newark residents.

Besides his endorsement by Cerf, Gregory was also chosen as a “Future Chief” by the group Chiefs for Change, which has ties to the education-reform movement. Yet because of his local roots and relatively brief overlap with Cerf in the district office, he has retained the trust of many who might otherwise be wary of such associations — including the teachers union.

He is also revered by many of the students, parents, and educators he’s worked with over the years and has used his time as interim chief to raise his public profile. On Saturday alone, he made appearances at a school-board retreat, a robotics competition, a teacher hiring fair, a South Ward schools event, an LGBTQ student celebration, and a high-school jazz concert.

Still, he has relatively little experience as a top district official. By contrast, one of the other candidates the board is said to be considering, Andres Alonso, previously ran the Baltimore school system.

And Gregory may not be the only local candidate in the running. Another rumored contender is Roger Leon, a former Newark principal and current assistant superintendent who was recommended by the board to become superintendent in 2015 but was turned down by the state.

Now, as the superintendent search enters its final stage, any jockeying among candidates and lobbying of board members is happening out of public view. But whoever is hired will instantly become the public face of the district and the person whom board members, interest groups, and politicians turn to as they try to influence the district’s direction.

“Whoever becomes superintendent of Newark Public Schools is going to have to navigate through this maze of nonsense,” said Loucious Jones, a longtime parent-activist who said the challenge will be to put students ahead of politics. “Can you be true to the children of Newark? Can you be their advocate?”

From teacher to leader

One bright morning last month at the Sussex Avenue Renew School, Gregory was seated inside Principal Darleen Gearhart’s office, talking about roller skates.

He has visited about two dozen elementary and middle schools since February. For Gregory, who is most familiar with high schools, the 90-minute tours have allowed him to meet new principals and start forming what he calls a “heat map” — a rough grouping of schools according to how much support and supervision they need. For principals, the visits have provided a preview of the man who could become their next boss.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Gregory reviewing school data with Sussex Avenue Renew School Principal Darleen Gearhart.

At Sussex Avenue, a once-troubled school that has steadily improved under Gearhart, Gregory sat next to the principal and reviewed the school’s rising test scores. “Phenomenal,” he said, before giving Gearhart a fist bump. But Gregory was equally impressed when she explained how she had taken her teachers’ suggestion and bought roller skates for students to use during phys-ed class.

“Roller skating, I love it!” Gregory said. “But the better thing is, your teachers thought about it. So you’re tapping into what motivates them. Smart — Ed Leadership 101.”

Gregory has honed his own leadership style in the two decades that he’s worked in Newark schools.

As an English and social-studies teacher at Camden Middle School in the early 2000s, he led his students to victory in a statewide civics competition. One year, as part of that contest, they lobbied the city to install a traffic light at an intersection where a student had been killed.

He motivated students by being forthright with them, said Khadijat Yekeen, Gregory’s former student at Camden.

“He’d tell us the reality is we’re already at a disadvantage because the color of our skin and the city we come from — but we can push past that,” recalled Yekeen, who credits Gregory with inspiring her to become an English teacher.

In 2006, he became the founding principal of a new magnet school, American History High School. Like other magnet schools, it has competitive admissions, though Gregory said it “wasn’t a real magnet school” because many admitted students entered far behind academically. Still, any future superintendent will likely have to address complaints by parents and some educators that magnet schools exclude too many Newark students.

At American History, Gregory went to great lengths to support and encourage the faculty, said Hassanah Blake, a former teacher there.

Gregory would email teachers articles about their craft or bring in books from home and occasionally took over a class himself so he could model certain techniques. During Teacher Appreciation Week, he planned a different treat each day — Dunkin’ Donuts gift cards, pep rallies, free professional massages.

He also allowed teachers to design their own curriculums as long as they ignited students’ interest, said Blake, who is now a vice principal at University High School.

“The autonomy he gave us is what allowed the magic to happen,” she said. “That was a powerful experience.”

Still, if teachers failed to meet his expectations and did not show a willingness to improve, he would encourage them to leave — or force them to. Gregory said he was one of the few principals to successfully bring a charge against a tenured teacher before the state’s tenure law was changed in 2012.

“I will never back down from that fight,” he said last month. “We can build skill; we can’t build will.”

As with other tactics he used as a principal, they could encounter new complications and resistance if enacted across the district.

Politics 101

In 2015, Gregory made the leap from principal to district leader — a role, he’s finding, that is infinitely more political than running a single school or classroom.

After Gregory served as assistant superintendent of high schools for less than two years, Cerf promoted him to deputy superintendent last June. In effect, Cerf had chosen his replacement if he stepped down early — which he did in February, in an effort to jump-start the district’s transition back to local control. (Technically, the school board could have chosen someone else to serve as interim superintendent, but its members voted for Gregory.)

Still, Gregory does not see his role as simply extending Cerf’s legacy. Gregory said his predecessors had achieved some positive results, but he plans to chart a different course.

“I would definitely not characterize myself as a ‘reformer,’” he said, “because I don’t believe in a playbook. I believe in differentiated leadership and instruction based on the situation.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Gregory observing a lesson at Sussex Avenue Renew School.

Unlike self-described reformers, Gregory said he’s not interested in overhauling the district or wading into pitched policy battles. For instance, he called arguments over the merits of traditional versus charter schools “a stupid fight to have.” Instead, his focus is on applying his approach as principal to the entire district — recruiting and supporting strong teachers and allowing high-performing schools to earn autonomy.

“The next wave of this work is developing people,” he said. “How do we make our teachers better? How do we make our principals better so we can get better outcomes for kids?”

But the flipside of developing talent — how to determine who is a good teacher (or not) and what to do with those who receive low ratings — remains hotly contested. The next superintendent will undoubtedly be dragged into the political fray over that and other issues.

The Newark Teachers Union, for example, opposed Anderson and Cerf at every turn. Although Cerf promoted Gregory, NTU President John Abeigon said he does not associate the protégé with his predecessors. Of Gregory, Abeigon said, “He’s professional, he’s affable, he gets it.” But the union leader said he would push hard on Gregory or whoever becomes superintendent to undo any remnants of the previous era.

“Eliminate anything and everything associated with the last eight years of corporate reform,” Abeigon said, “and terminate anyone who was hired by them.”

For his part, Mayor Ras Baraka has promised “to have as heavy a hand as possible” in the district, even though he has no direct authority over it. He joined a North Ward councilman and charter-school supporters in backing the three winning candidates in last month’s school board election. And he helped choose a controlling four of the seven members of the committee that selected the superintendent finalists, whom the full board will vote on in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, the board is eager to reassert itself after offering only suggestions during the 22 years of state dominance. Board member Tave Padilla said the board will not interfere with the day-to-day operation of the district, but board members do expect to have a say in district policy and finances.

“The superintendent’s office has to come to the understanding that we’re not advisory anymore,” Padilla said. “We’re not going to advise you that this is what we want to do — we’re going to tell you.”

Local support

As Gregory tries to hang onto his perch in the superintendent’s office, he may end up competing with colleagues in the district.

Several board members and community leaders have made clear that even though the state required a national superintendent search, they would prefer a homegrown leader. Any local candidates will come with their own bases of support.

Joanne Gobin, a former parent at American History High, said the possibility that Gregory will become the next superintendent is one reason she keeps her children in Newark schools. Cheryl Whitley Crawford, who taught alongside Gregory at Harold Wilson Middle School in the 1990s, said he’s the only colleague she remembers from that time.

“I swear by him,” she said. “He can turn this district around.”

During his visit to Sussex Avenue Renew School in April, Gregory stopped in a hallway to hug a kindergarten teacher who said, “I know this guy!” On a stairwell, he embraced a school safety agent whose nieces and nephews he once taught, and whose mother was an usher in his childhood church.

But for all his local credentials, Gregory’s fate is ultimately up to the school board — a fact that Sussex Avenue’s chief innovation officer, Christopher Constantino, alluded to at the end of Gregory’s visit.

“I wish you good luck, man,” Constantino told him. “I hope you get it.”

 

Clarification: This story was updated to note that the Newark school board voted for Gregory to fill the role of interim superintendent. 

Election Results

Candidates backed by powerful coalition sweep Newark’s historic school board election

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Asia Norton, a charter-school teacher, was elected to fill one of three open seats on the school board.

A charter school teacher, a former labor organizer, and a PTA president swept Newark’s school board election Tuesday, according to preliminary results, earning spots on the first board to wield full control over the city’s schools in over two decades.

The new members — Asia Norton, Yambeli Gomez, and Dawn Haynes — will help select a new superintendent for the 36,000-student district and oversee its nearly $1 billion budget. Those powers were restored to the board in February, when the state officially ended its 22-year-long takeover of the district.

The winning candidates were part of a slate backed by a powerful alliance among Mayor Ras Baraka, North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr., and pro-charter school groups. By uniting behind a single slate of candidates in each of the past three elections, those once-rival factions have managed to reshape the board: With this election, all nine board members will have been endorsed by the coalition.

The coalition-backed candidates earned far more votes than their 10 opponents. But, as in past years, few voters went to the polls. With 90 percent of districts reporting by Tuesday night, just over 6,700 ballots had been cast — less than 5 percent of the city’s registered voters. Low voter turnout is common in districts like Newark, where board elections are held separately from other elections.

Some observers had hoped the return to local control would drive more people to the polls. But many Newarkers don’t yet know about the shift, said Kaleena Berryman, acting director of the Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers University-Newark.

The group, which trains Newark residents on how to get involved in education policy, hosted a workshop on local control last weekend. Berryman said it will take more time to teach the public why the school board is important and how to influence its decision-making.

“The board has the remote control, but the community has to have the batteries,” she said. “And our batteries are our voice, our advocacy, and our vote.”

PHOTO: movingnewarkschoolsforward.com
A screenshot of the “Moving Newark Schools Forward” slate’s website with the three winning candidates: Yambeli Gomez, Dawn Haynes, and Asia Norton.

The new board members will get to work immediately, with training sessions scheduled for later this week. Once they are sworn in, their first order of business will be to help choose a new superintendent. (One of the applicants for that position is Robert Gregory, a former principal who is serving as interim superintendent.)

The board has until May 31 to make its pick, according to a transition plan created by the state to guide the district back to local control. The plan also sets out other requirements — including that the city hold a vote in November to decide whether to stick with an elected school board or start letting the mayor appoint its members. (Baraka has said he thinks the board should be elected.)

Meanwhile, the board also intends to reevaluate some policies enacted during the state takeover — starting with the school-enrollment system that sparked an uproar when it first went into effect in 2014. The system replaced the tradition of students attending their nearest school with a citywide enrollment lottery, and created a single application for most district and charter schools. Board members say the district has improved the system over time, but they still hear complaints from some parents.

“The enrollment process has always been a concern of residents and parents,” said board member Kim Gaddy. Reviewing it and considering changes, she said, “is definitely going to be a priority and big responsibility of the board.”

The winners in Tuesday’s election each had ties to the groups that endorsed them.

Norton is a Newark parent and kindergarten teacher at KIPP Life Academy charter school. Gomez is a former labor organizer who is now a city councilman’s aide and a district captain for the North Ward Democrats. Haynes is a City Hall staffer and president of the Harriet Tubman school’s parent-teacher association.

The winners reported a combined $21,208 in campaign contributions, with Gomez raising the most thanks to large donations from union-affiliated groups, according to campaign filings made prior to election day. The other board candidates did not report any contributions prior to the election.

The winning candidates, whose slate was called “Moving Newark Schools Forward,” were able to campaign alongside Baraka and Ramos, who are both running for reelection next month. With support from the politicians’ political machines, they called voters, flooded the city with flyers, and even secured a mobile billboard with their names and faces.

The machines are famous for getting their loyalists to the polls. On Tuesday, a man wearing a “Team Baraka” hat dropped off a woman at Rafael Hernandez School so she could vote. The man declined to give his name, but said he and the woman are both city employees.

Meanwhile, several parents and teachers said they had not heard about the election as they left the North Ward school on Tuesday. By 5 p.m., just under 60 ballots had been cast at the site in the 10 hours since it opened, according to Juanita Zerbian, a poll worker.

“It’s sad,” she said, adding that she wished more parents took an interest in the board. “They’re the first ones to complain about the school system, but they don’t come out to vote.”

The scene was similar at Dr. E. Alma Flagg School in the Central Ward, where poll workers chatted amongst themselves Tuesday evening in the school’s empty gymnasium while one of their colleagues — her legs wrapped in a blanket — sat beside a voting booth that went unused for long stretches.

Yambeli Gomez, who stopped by the school with a few campaign workers, said it was “discouraging” to see the low turnout. But she vowed, once elected, to continue meeting with parents and community members and urging them to get involved with the schools.

“I’m going to keep knocking on doors,” she said.