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Date: 2009-05-02

High Tide in Newark

If, as they say, a rising tide lifts all boats, Newark, N.J. may soon need a marina.

Charter school advocates often contend the presence of successful charter schools in otherwise poor performing school districts can only help by forcing the remaining schools to improve.

They may have found a friend in Newark.

Challenged by a growing number of high-performing charter schools within its bounds, the Newark Public School District last week announced an ambitious plan to turn around its schools to create a system that is bolder, more accountable, more transparent and more innovative.

The plan, set forth in a 42-page report, “Moving Forward Together: Preparing Students for College, Work and Life,” is remarkable not only for the breadth of changes proposed but also for the candid admissions of failure within the school district.

“What took decades to create will take years to fix,” said state district Superintendent Dr. Clifford B. Janey, who has been serving as the state-appointed superintendent since 2008.

Long one of the poorest cities in the nation — more than a quarter of its families live below the poverty line — Newark is the largest school district in New Jersey, with over 40,000 students in 74 public schools. The district has been under state control for over a decade because of poor student performance and a lack of fiscal accountability, although recently the state has ceded some control back to the city.

Despite its reputation as a struggling impoverished city, Newark has attracted the attention of a growing group of education entrepreneurs, including the Gates Foundation and Oprah Winfrey. Philanthropy Magazine recently highlighted the city as a bright spot on the philanthropic horizon because of its size and its core of successful charter schools. Those charter schools — 14 already open and two pending for 2009 — include both home-grown schools and those affiliated with the KIPP and Uncommon Schools networks.

Superintendent Janey has openly acknowledged the work of some Newark charter schools and has encouraged the community to embrace what’s working there. He hopes the charter schools will one day return to the district fold.

At its core, the plan calls for innovation at all levels, supported by increased collaboration with community partners like Prudential and Continental Airlines. Administrators, teachers and parents alike will all be held to elevated standards of accountability and performance. Newark by the numbers (NPS).

Among the highlights: Ensuring access to early education and enrolling at least 90 percent of the preschool population in programs; Strengthening the middle grades with the help of the Academy for Educational Development’s Middle Start program; Developing alternatives in the high school landscape, including nine new small schools, an Early College high school, and Career Academies; Promoting more effective teachers and principals by working with the teachers’ union to establish a system that improves professional development and recognizes performance Overhauling the central office bureaucracy and appointing a chief academic officer; Increasing collaboration and partnerships with community organizations and businesses Directly engaging parents and guardians in the life of schools, with increased and mutual accountability by parents and school


Innovative curricula, parent commitment, community support. Sound like a charter school manifesto?

(The Newark charter school movement will be the focus of coverage over the next few months as part of the News 21/Carnegie-Knight Foundation Summer Fellowship. Watch for more stories to come on the Newark public and charter schools.

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