Newark Announces Community Schools Reform Initiative


In an effort to assist Newark, New Jersey’s perpetually-troubled school system, a group of city leaders gathered at City Hall this week to announce a new plan called the “South Ward Community Schools Initiative.” Mayor Ras Baraka and School Superintendent Chris Cerf were part of the gathering and detailed early plans that would extend various supports to students in some of the city’s neediest schools.

Dan Iver, reporting for New Jersey On-Line, writes that the venture has received a provisional commitment of $12.5 million from the Foundation for Newark’s Future (FNF), which is the organization created to oversee the $100 million given by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2010 to reform Newark’s struggling school system.

The reforms garnered widespread criticism because many thought the focus on classroom-based changes and not on the social distresses of the city was a mistake. There was also concern that the reforms were biased toward charter schools, which critics say caused traditional schools to stretch budgets too thin.

The mayor agreed with the critics, praising the new initiative because of its comprehensive support system that includes social workers, physical and mental health workers, and staff that will supply healthy meals.

The details are still being ironed out, but the program is planned to begin by next fall at Malcolm X Shabazz High School and three other “feeder” schools in the area that are yet to be determined.

FNF pledged $1.2 million to support the new plan and the Newark Opportunity Youth Network (NOYN), a program working to steer dropouts and other at-risk youth toward obtaining a diploma. The initiative pledged $10 million to community schools and $2.5 million to NOYN. Even though the district has a significant budget deficit, officials hope to begin the initiative in other schools around the city in the future.

“In 20 years, this is the first time we’ve seen that the state has taken an active interest in….what the community needs, what the community wants,” said South Ward Councilman John Sharpe James.

Teachers, administrators and union leaders were in attendance at the press conference to express conditional support for the plan.

In 2009, city and state leaders including former Gov. Jon Corzine met in front of a Central Ward school to announce aplan for “community schools.” NJSpotlight’s John Mooney reported that the plan was to provide social and other services to the neighborhoods surrounding the struggling schools, and it was to be called the “Global Village.”

But when Gov. Chris Christie took office, he hired Superintendent Cami Anderson for Newark, who had her own agenda of reform ideas for the state-run school district.

The press conference for the “Global Village” plan was held at Central High School, where Baraka was principal in 2009.

The donation from Zuckerberg’s funding for the “South Ward Community Schools Initiative” is one of the last, five years after he began the Newark philanthropy mission. Helping Newark was his first public philanthropic act and was a source of ongoing controversy over wealthy donors’ influence on public education. Last month, Zuckerberg said he learned from the Newark experience that the community’s wishes must be understood when working in education, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy.