Newark Chapter 9: Progress from Peril to Promise But Will the Full Potential of Chartering Be Achieved?
Taken then from a multi-decade perspective, the reform efforts in Newark can be characterized as nothing other than an unprecedented success in the city’s history of attempting to address what were long thought to be intractable problems within its public education system.
Starting from a circumstance of broadly acknowledged dysfunction and brokenness …
… Newark’s public schools have shown gains that place them among the most improved of any in the nation.
Gains have been across both district schools and charter schools as charter schools have grown to serve 37% of the students in the city.
Perhaps most impressively, over a reform effort that has now lasted a quarter century, a cadre of education leaders has emerged in Newark who not only helped the city itself achieve its own success, but has gone on to catalyze similar progress in communities across the country.
Leaders working in key positions of leadership who got their start in Newark reform efforts include:
Shavar Jeffries, who now serves as the CEO of KIPP Foundation overseeing KIPP’s national efforts.
Derrell Bradford, who now serves as the President of 50CAN, a nationwide network of education reform advocacy organizations.
Julie Jackson, who now serves as the Co-CEO of Uncommon Schools.
Norman Atkins, who among many other senior leadership roles, went on to found and serve as the President of Relay Graduate School of Education.
Mashae Ashton, who went on to serve as the Board Chair of the National Alliance and to found Digital Pioneers, a charter school in the District of Columbia.
Bill Kurtz, the Founding CEO of DSST, a charter management organization now serving more than 7,000 students in Denver.
Janel Artis-Wright, the Executive Director of the Freedom Coalition for Charter Schools.
Ryan Hill, who in addition to continuing to oversee KIPP New Jersey, has gone onto lead KIPP Miami as well.
Ron Rice, Senior Policy Director at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Joanna Belcher, Chief External Impact Officer for KIPP Southern California.
Sheria McRae, CEO of Foundation Academies in Trenton, New Jersey.
All trace their education reform roots back to Newark, New Jersey.
As such, a city that was once known for having a public school system that was so broken that its most prominent historian described its cumulative impact as “pity the children” has now gone on to nurture the development of a new generation of educators that has not only greatly improved Newark’s own public schools, but has created a diaspora of talent that has sparked positive change across the United States.
It is why we present Newark as one of the strongest examples of a city that has moved its public schools over the past three decades from peril to promise.
The question now before Newark is “what comes next?” Because efforts to improve and sustain progress in public education are never ending. And like all public schools in the country, Newark’s public schools saw great challenge during the Covid era. And there are growing concerns that, as the local school board has regained control of the city’s schools, the district is beginning to regress toward dysfunction and inequity that leave large numbers of the system’s most vulnerable students in unacceptable educational settings.
Much of the criticism focuses on the school district’s decision to continue operating a large number of selective admissions magnets that screen out the district’s most vulnerable students from being able to attend the most sought after schools, creating greatly disparate conditions in schools across the district.
Rather than trying to address the inequities that arise from the use of selective admissions, the district has chosen to make the criteria it uses even more selective.
It has also opened even more schools that are using selective admissions.
These policy decisions create a circumstance within non-magnet schools like the historic Shabazz High School, where students experience conditions reminiscent of the ones that were found throughout the city in the era before chartering.
Charter schools do not make use of selective admissions, but rather than than making it easier for students and families to apply to opportunities they are structurally denied access to within district-managed schools, the district has used its control of the common enrollment platform that was created during the state’s management of the district to make the process of applying to a charter school more cumbersome in hopes of directing enrollment back to district schools.
Charges of lack of transparency at the top of the district are also resurfacing.
The district has also terminated previous partnerships with area nonprofits that thrived during the period of state control, including the highly successful partnership between Brick and Avon Elementary Schools.
Perhaps most concerning of all, dozens of district-managed schools have regressed to performance levels that the state is again identifying as needing improvement.
Among the schools identified as showing the lowest levels of academic performance was Avon, a school that just five years before was recognized for having been one of the most improved of all public schools in the state and was identified within The Prize as a prototype for positive change that could have been replicated throughout the district. Avon’s demise shows just how illusive long-term improvement can be and how never-ending diligence is needed to sustain transformational change.
All of these recent development happen against a backdrop of changing political conditions at state and local levels.
In 2019, Newark’s new superintendent, Roger León, called on the state to rein in charter school growth in the city.
Soon after coming into office, New Jersey’s new governor, Phil Murphy, began doing just that, denying expansion requests coming from Newark charter schools despite the fact that many of the applications came from some of the highest performing charter schools in the city.
After considerable pressure was placed upon the Murphy Administration to reverse course, several Newark schools were finally granted the right to expand in the winter of 2023.
Among the schools approved for further expansion was North Star, Newark’s first charter school, which had nearly 800 students on its waiting list despite having grown to operate 14 schools serving over 7,000 students.
On the opposite side of the size spectrum, another school approved to expand was LINK Community Charter School, a school serving less than 500 students. LINK, as readers of this exhibit will recall, is one of the longest-serving education nonprofits in Newark, with roots going back to the 1960’s.
It was also the home of James Verrilli, who along with Norman Atkins, founded North Star Academy in the 1997. One of the reasons Verrilli cited for leaving LINK to found a charter school was the fact that LINK was a private school at the time and could not serve students without charging tuition. Under the change approved in February of 2023, LINK was finally allowed to complete its transition to becoming a full K-12 tuition-free charter school.
So we see that the story of Newark’s multi-decade effort to evolve its public schools from peril to promise continues to unfold, and it is not at all certain that policy makers will continue to make the courageous decisions needed to ensure that even greater progress is generated in the years ahead. But as Cami Anderson shared with the National Charter School Founders Library in an oral history, given the striking progress that has been made in Newark, it is surprising that there aren’t more cities across the United States that are attempting to drive a similar reform.
I 100% believe that Newark will be and is better off with a thriving charter sector and a thriving traditional sector. I believed it then. I believe it now. I believe it is the future. I believe it is the future everywhere …. And I’m shocked that we don’t have more citywide examples of this …. In a place like Newark, I think it is the only pathway. And I’ll tell you why I say that. The community is not going to accept a solution where the district is doing everything. They’re not. Because they’ve tasted success. And they shouldn’t. They’ve seen too many proof points from the charter sector. There are too many leaders and alumni who know what the charter sector can do. The charter sector has been embedded in the community in a great way. So anybody who thinks we can go back, why would you want to?
Despite mounting evidence in Newark that chartering has brought public education efforts within grasp of its long-sought “prize” – a hybrid mix of public education offerings providing higher quality options and greater equity to all families and students in the system – the fact remains that many defenders of an antiquated status quo are working diligently to make public education “go back.” Their argument for regression to an antecedant mean rests on an assertion that a prior iteration of public schooling was a somehow more successful one – that there was once a previous “prize” of excellence and equity that had been achieved and has somehow been lost.
Such an argument can only be advanced amid broad scale ignorance of history, for any credible assessment of the arc of public education in Newark since the publication of “A Nation at Risk” would find that deeply intractable problems were rampant throughout the system forty years ago and that tens of thousands of students and families were being fundamentally under served. And today, while many challenges yet remain, the overall public education effort happening in Newark is greatly more successful than what existed previously and poises the city for even more success should bold reform efforts be sustained. As such, it is clear that there is no historical “prize” to return to. There is only a potential future prize that can be aspired to, one that may now at long last be finally within the city’s grasp should it choose to continue forward with dedication and courage.
The stakes surrounding the choice whether to attempt to regress back to an illusory past prize or to aspire further forward toward a potentially transformational one are best understood when the history of public education, and the unique catalytic role that chartering can play within it, is viewed over a multi-decade timeframe. It is why, both in Newark and in other cities where the power of chartering has brought new reason for hope to millions of students and families, the National Charter School Founders Library works to accurately present history for all to see.