Cami Anderson struggles with her conscience as the superintendent of the Newark public schools
It's easy to see that Cami Anderson struggles with her conscience as the superintendent of the Newark public schools, the largest district in New Jersey. She wonders aloud about the consequences of improving 30 out of 100 schools while making the other 70 worse. Is a grade of 30% passing?
"We don't want to create awesome speed boats for some, but then the Titanic sinks faster for the others," Anderson told an audience at the recent New Jersey School Choice Week conference in Jersey City. "How do we get to 100?"
But after nearly four years on the job, she acknowledges that she's not up to even 30%. She says about 10 district schools in Newark, which has been under state control since 1995, were described as good when Republican Gov. Chris Christie appointed her in May 2011. Now, she says it's 20 or 22.
Anderson presides over a project known as One Newark, a revolutionary universal-enrollment program that assigns students to public and most charter schools through one application. It was up to her to redesign a system that has gone from charter schools enrolling 5% of the students to 40% in seven years. As students flocked to well-regarded charters run by KIPP and North Star and enrollment in her traditional public schools plummeted, she realized she had to bring the name-brand charters into the game plan. Instead of opening grade by grade in the downtown area, she asked them to consider their "moral obligation" and take over existing schools in downtrodden areas so those neighborhoods wouldn't implode as school after school was shuttered.
Instead of fighting the charters, she joined them. She's created the first single-sex public schools in the state in 40 years. There are school fairs at which the elementary, middle and high schools, charters and magnets, pitch their products. Students rank their choices for September and hope for the best. Anderson says only a quarter of the schools are over-subscribed. The most popular schools use a series of criteria – siblings already enrolled, neighborhood, disability, poverty level – to decide who gets in and who doesn't. Her critics call it her "secret algorithm." She shrugs. "It's a version of managed choice, no matter what you call it," she says.
She's also put smaller schools together in big buildings and added early-childhood education centers to some grade schools and high schools. Fewer children in the traditional public schools mean less funding, so closings and lay-offs have rocked the city. She is still beholden to the mandated last-in, first-out lay-off system for teachers. We "can't act like they weren't dying," she says of high schools with ever-shrinking enrollments and 40% graduation rates. "Killing a dysfunctional system and building back up for the children is messy."
Messy and ugly and loud and downright nasty.
…As the daughter of a community activist in Watts after the 1965 riots, Anderson argues that she engages the community "one conversation, one coffee klatch, one dinner party at a time." She's in classrooms twice a week and meets PTA heads in their homes. Is it enough? "We're moving the needle in Newark," she says. But it's clear from the clenched jaw that she hears her critics' attacks as she ponders the fate of her Titanic.