Cami Anderson, the superintendent of the Newark, New Jersey school district, has only been on the job since May 2011 — but her influence is already being felt throughout the city. Since her appointment, Anderson has been on a reforming rampage, closing down failing schools, firing nearly half of the principals, introducing longer school days for thousands of Newark students, and opening several new high schools to serve kids who've fallen far behind their peers due to having attended poorly performing middle schools.
DeShawn Boyd is one such student. He entered one of the schools opened under Anderson, the Bard Early College High School, as a freshman last year expecting to have no issues with the schoolwork. He was one of the top students at Camden Middle School, and looked forward to the challenge the next four years would bring. What he found instead is that he was failing several classes, including math, which had been his favorite subject. He realized then that his straight As in Camden didn't prepare him at all for the high school-level work.
DaShawn said his middle school teachers were so busy breaking up fights among students that there was little time left for instruction. Now, he and roughly two dozen classmates must repeat some freshman year coursework at Bard — one of four new high schools opened last year in Newark — because they were not ready for the rigors of high school.
"At my old school, I was the smart kid," said Lorenzo Lloyd, 15, another Bard student who failed at least one course. "Those teachers cheated me out of a better education."
Anderson's laser-like focus on the problems facing the district, and her determination to work fast and bring about change immediately as opposed to several years down the road, has won her a surprising number of friends both within the district hierarchy and from members of the community. Some, however, seem taken aback by the pace of the change. Instead of embracing the revolution, they're battening down the hatches.
They'd better batten them down tight, because Anderson isn't finished. This fall, failed community schools will be replaced by new combined elementary-middle school academies with brand new staff, leaders, and faculty, and updated technology, including broadband access.
And she shows no signs of letting up.
"None of this work is easy because we all want results for our kids yesterday," Anderson said. "We will make some mistakes for sure, but if we learn from our missteps and follow the pathway my team has laid out, I'm hopeful we will end up in a good place for kids."
The complaints mainly center on her failure to keep those affected by changes in the loop. They're worried that because she isn't firmly established in hearts and minds of the community, even small mistakes could scuttle Anderson's efforts at reform.