Thursday, July 9, 2015

Newark Public Schools: Frying Pan to Fire

As part of an agreement reached between Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and Gov. Christie to return local control of the city's public schools, yesterday the New Jersey State Board of Education, under the leadership of Christie-appointed Education Commissioner David Hespe, voted to appoint the former—and controversial—NJ Education Commissioner Chris Cerf as superintendent of Newark, following the controversial Cami Anderson's long-awaited resignation.

As thrilled as many of us in the education activist community are at seeing Anderson go, Cerf was her boss, so there's more than enough skepticism that things will change. But Baraka, an educator himself, ran and won on a platform of regaining local control. He's been an outspoken critic of Anderson and Christie's 'reform' agenda, so I have to believe that he truly has a plan. 

But appointing the uber-reformy Broad Book Club (as Jersey Jazzman calls it) Academy graduate Chris Cerf, not as an acting superintendent, but as a full-fledged super with a 3 year contract is not exactly the road to local control the citizens of Newark envisioned. And they voiced their displeasure earlier this week with a rally at City Hall. 

Photo courtesy New Jersey News 12
The state BOE voted 6-3 to approve Cerf with the Christie appointees voting in the majority. And the 'reformy' rhetoric was flying! Education activist and college student, Melissa Katz, attended yesterday's BOE meeting and reported on it over at Bob Braun's Ledger. The following is her transcript of the meeting. In an homage to the Common Core's close reading, my comments are in red.

Pearson defines Close Reading as:   
Close, analytic reading stresses engaging with a text of sufficient complexity directly and examining meaning thoroughly and methodically, encouraging students to read and reread deliberately. Directing student attention on the text itself empowers students to understand the central ideas and key supporting details. It also enables students to reflect on the meanings of individual words and sentences; the order in which sentences unfold; and the development of ideas over the course of the text, which ultimately leads students to arrive at an understanding of the text as a whole. (PARCC, 2011, p. 7)
I've also highlighted words that are straight out of the 'reform' dictionary. Be on the lookout for them, they are the red flags of 'reform'.

Melissa's report:

Hespe on Cerf: "The education reforms under way in Newark must continue." (So, closing schools, flipping them to charters, firing staff, and underfunding public schools will continue. In other words, business as usual.)

“We are 20 years into the state operation of the Newark district and we’re at a very, in my mind, crucial period in time in our work with the community of Newark. (Indeed! The community is fed up.) Two weeks ago, I announced the departure of Cami Anderson as State Superintendent. We recognized her hard work on behalf of the children (Notice how many times he repeats this phrase. When all else fails, 'reformies' fall back to this one.) and people of Newark, and I truly believe that Newark Public Schools have made tremendous strides over past years under a number of series of innovative reforms and the earnest leadership of not only the district staff and the State Board, but also local educators who have I think made a difference. (Which educators is he talking about? The real ones who are fighting the reforms, or the business people now making beaucoup bucks as administrators?) The focus we should always remember is on how our vision for Newark schools will advance the best interest of children in Newark (Well, some of the children anyway—those who are lucky enough to win that golden ticket into a charter school and actually make it all the way through. The rest of Newark's children have sent a strong, clear, loud message that they do not want corporate-style 'reforms')— and that’s why whatever we do moving forward, the education reforms under way in Newark must continue (Again, business as usual.) and we must work with all folks in Newark: all parents, all educators, all community leaders to make certain that as we focus on providing parents with greater educational opportunities, improving instruction, and developing innovative programs (Closing and/or defunding schools, segregating students and firing staff are so innovative!) and establishing best practices in the classroom (Obviously without teacher input.), that they continue; but with the knowledge that all of these initiatives are dynamic in nature, they will be constantly improved, constantly be changed (Because nothing works better in education than constant change. As in the corporate world, ed 'reform' is all about churn, churn, churn), and sustained, and intensified.

“With that said, I think, I strongly – and I know its shared by board members – support the involvement of the community in educational decision making (Why now? Does Hespe finally realize he's lost the battle, and the only way to save face is to actually involve the community?), and I know that’s a key component of success of any school improvement initiative. It not only serves to bolster the commitment to make the hard decisions that are required over time to sustain these initiatives, but also help these initiatives be successful. Often, however, we see the tension between state operation in terms of developing and implementing a bold educational improvement agenda, and local control in terms of community engagement and buy-in. (Translation: The people didn't ask for and do not want your 'bold educational improvement agenda'—especially when your hand-picked superintendent thought it was beneath her to engage with the community.) These tensions create a challenge that can and must be resolved if the children of Newark are to continue to see the fruits of these reform initiatives, and the people of Newark are to see the economic and standard of living improvements that come with a skilled and educated workforce. (Education 'reform' alone will not fix poverty.) That’s why I was so pleased that the Mayor of Newark and the Governor of New Jersey came together to establish a shared vision for empowering the people of Newark to make decisions over their schools while sustaining and growing a culture of high educational expectations, accountability, and results in the City. This included the creation of the Newark Educational Success Board (Another layer of administration? How much will this cost, who is on it and who is paying for it?) that will be charged with developing a clear, specific pathway with appropriate timelines and benchmarks for return of local control to the Newark community. The panel will also examine the issue of capacity building at a district and school level with government, community, and neighborhood groups to ensure that the problems that led to state takeover of the schools never reoccur and decision making focuses always on what is in the best interest of children. Communication we know will continue to be key, and we must communicate fully and effectively to students and parents in the community throughout this pending transitional process (So, where the heck is Cerf? Why hasn't he made any appearances in Newark yet? Why hasn't he spoken to the press? The parents? The students? Anybody!).

“I also announced that Chris Cerf would be recommended to the State Board of Education as the next and likely last state superintendent for the Newark School district. I wholeheartedly endorse him to fulfill this unique roll. He has the integrity to focus on doing what is right for the children of Newark, (On what does he base this? Where is Cerf's resume? Why does he have more integrity than a superintendent with years of experience?) he has the strength to stand up to any corporate interests (What?! The audacity of this statement just floors me. Chris Cerf is the poster boy for corporate interest! Dear Lord, if there is but a smidgen of doubt in anyone's mind about Cerf's intentions, Jersey Jazzman has written a veritable enclycopedia on him. See hereherehereherehere.), he has the organizational experience to manage this larger, dynamic change process (What proof does Hespe have? Cerf taught high school history for 3 years back in the Stone Age and he is not a certified school administrator.), he’s innovative, and a true problem-solver. (Again, where' the proof?) He understands the Newark public schools and initiatives, as well as the community. (emphasis mine)

I almost fell off my chair when I read that last line. How in the world does he make that statement with a straight face? Cerf lives in the uber-wealthy, mostly white, Essex County suburb of Montclair, and when he was acting ed comissioner, he rented an apartment in the uber-wealthy and even more white Somerset County suburb of Montgomery. As Jersey Jazzman reported:

Earlier this year, Cerf rented an apartment in Somerset County that is closer to his job in Trenton than the home he shares with his wife and children in Montclair. Cerf said he rented the apartment in Montgomery because the area was "charming" and the rent was "reasonable."
[Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union)] said the committee should be "insulted" by Cerf’s deception. The real reason for Cerf’s move, he said, was a need to get out of Essex County because of [Sen. Ron] Rice’s decision to block [his] nomination. The unwritten senatorial courtesy rule allows senators to block gubernatorial appointees who reside in the counties the lawmakers serve.
"If you had sat down and said ‘I moved because of Senate rules or senatorial courtesy or Senator Rice, and I had to get a residence somewhere else,’ that’s one thing," Scutari said. "For you to sit here and tell us you moved to be closer to work when you have a driver, I cannot accept that answer." [emphasis mine]
"He has the ability to work with the charter school sector." 

Damn right he does! Cerf is a charter cheerleader extraordinaire! Back in 2013, blogger Darcie Cimarusti reported on Cerf buddie, Steven Wilson, who was looking to open several charter schools in state-controlled Paterson: 

Seems that if you know the Commissioner [Cerf] and [Evo Popoff] his Chief Innovation Officer you not only get wooed to open a charter school, you get cash money to boot!  
What's most frightening to me is that Wilson says his plan is to open a "cluster" of charters in Paterson. Paterson is home to 33 elementary schools, and four elementary academies.  Lots of room for Wilson to grab some market share, especially with Cerf and Popoff in his back pocket.
And let's not forget.  The people of Paterson knew NOTHING about this application until after it had been approved. This is being done TO the people of Paterson, not WITH them.  
How does Cerf get away with approving charters without community input time and time again?
Here's what needs to happen.  
The NJDOE needs to release every single document related to how Wilson's charter and grant applications were reviewed, as well as every other application in those application rounds. This is the only way the NJDOE can demonstrate that Wilson was not given a charter school and a $150,000 grant just because he knows Cerf and Popoff. We also need to know who reviewed those applications, how the reviewers were selected, and how the ratings impacted Cerf's final decisions.  

If anybody thinks the expansion of charters is going to diminish under Cerf, I have a bridge to close for sell you.

"In short, he is uniquely qualified to assume this role and hit the ground running quickly and effectively. (Yes, because he was Cami Anderson's puppet master.) I was here 20 years ago when the state board of education voted to takeover the Newark Public Schools and appoint a state superintendent. Truly, I believe we are presented with great opportunity to only build on the progress, which I know firsthand over those 20 years is often slow, and often painful, that was made over each minute of that 20 year period, to foster the improvement of lives of school children throughout the district which we set out to accomplish many years ago. (Granted change takes time, but after 20 years of state control, the state had only themselves to blame for educational outcomes in Newark. But Christie would never admit that, so instead, he assigned Cerf and Cami to dismantle the system.) We must also recognize that this path has great opportunity for improving it... but it’s also fraught with danger: danger of allowing the problems that led to state takeover in the first place to return; danger of distracting us from our singular goal of making children’s’ lives better.

“We need strength, we need wisdom, we need integrity, we need compassion, and we need commitment to doing what is in the best interest of the children of Newark. (But apparently we don't need experienced educators and educational leaders.) For those reasons, I urge you to approve the nomination of Chris Cerf as the next state operated superintendent.”

The resolution was then read, and board members, one by one, made comments and casted their votes.

(Note: See Melissa's report on Bob Braun's blog for full comments made by board members. For brevity's sake, I list only their votes.)

Arcelio Aponte: No (Not a Christie appointee.)

Board President Mark Biedron: Yes (Christie appointee)

Ronald Butcher: No (Not a Christie appointee)

Claire Chamberlain: Yes (Christie appointee)

Joe Fisicaro: Yes (Christie appointee)

Jack Fornaro: Yes (Christie appointee)

Edythe Fulton: No (Not a Christie appointee.)

Dorothy S. Strickland: No (Not a Christie appointee.)

Andrew J. Mulvihill: Yes (Christie appointee)

J. Peter Simon: Yes (Christie appointee)

Reaction from the audience included:

Donna Jackson, parent activist in Newark: 
“This is a slap in the face of every child in the city of Newark. The vote today just told every child in Newark that we care more about contracts, getting our friends jobs, closing down schools, and falsifying data, than seeing that their future is bright. I think the elected officials that represent Newark that agreed to this tragedy should all take a deep look inside themselves to see if they really can say they care about the children in the city of Newark. The request of Mr. Aponte should’ve been honored enforced and voted on today. We have another three years of hell in Newark, and believe me, the fight and protests will continue. We will not be quiet, we will not sit still. No, we will organize; we will continue to push back. We will run Cerf out of Newark as well.”

Donald G Jackson Jr., Newark school board member:  
“They have drawn a line in the sand. We know where they stand. The New Jersey State Board needs to get a grip on reality — they can’t talk about local budgets and talk about how money is spent and let Cami [Anderson] spend money in wasteful ways on salaries and failed reforms. I am very disappointed, but not surprised. At the end of the day, if it weren’t a poor black and Latino district we wouldn’t have this issue in the first place.”

In closing

The only voice of sanity in this Greek Tragedy is Mayor Ras Baraka, and he's asking the people of Newark to take a huge leap of faith. But how much longer are they supposed to wait? How much longer will their children be corporate 'reform' guinea pigs? What requirements will the state attach to their return of local control? If One Newark stays, how much hope do they really have? If the expansion of charter schools continues, how much longer can the district survive? 

The tone will be set when and if Cerf ever shows up. I've seen him in action at State Board of Ed and NJEA meetings, and I would like to offer him this one piece of advice: Check your ego at the door, and as I always tell my students: Mother Nature gave us two ears and one mouth because we need to speak less and listen more.