NEW YORK -- Cami Anderson has a big challenge.
In her first press conference since being named the new superintendent of Newark, N.J.'s largely failing public schools last week, the 39-year-old elaborated on the moment she felt inspired to take the job.
It was a sentiment she heard expressed by parents: "We don't need a hero." So Newark, she thought, was the perfect venue for her work. "I don't believe in lonely heroes winning the day. I actually believe in teams," she said. "I think it's the athlete in me ... Education is not an individual sport."
While local parents and educators may have stressed their desire for a team-oriented approach to remedying their schools, the strong national spotlight cast on education in Newark schools will inevitably make hers the face responsible for their fate: If she fails, she'll be pegged as an out-of-towner who made an even bigger mess. If she succeeds, she'll take on the mantle of being a hero.
"She'll be under the spotlight more as Newark's chief education officer," said Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia University's Teachers College. Since 2006, Anderson had been in charge of New York City's District 79, the alternate education division, which runs GED programs, among others. Though her previous district was comparable to Newark in scale, she was able to conduct that role under the radar.
At a time when rhetoric about the failing state of K-12 education in America is running high, Newark is seen as dismal. Only half of Newark's about 40,000 public school students graduate from high school on time. Even more require remedial coursework upon reaching college. These problems and an achievement gap persist, even despite the relatively high spending rate of $25,000 annually per student.
This state of affairs, plus the city schools' high-profile $100 million gift from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, makes Newark a national test case for the fixing of troubled urban schools and the use of major philanthropic dollars in an educational system.
"People are hoping that Newark can be an example of successful urban school reform," said Pedro Noguera, a New York University education professor who has worked with Newark's public schools.
That's why Anderson needs to show results quickly, Noguera said. "She needs to put out some goals," he said. "Short, medium and long-term goals. They need to see that Newark can start to move forward in the right direction. Some sense of incremental change will be reassuring to everyone that the leadership knows what it's doing."
Leadership in America's large, urban school districts has faced rapid leadership turnover, with Chicago, New York City, Montgomery County, Md. and New Orleans' Recovery School District hiring new superintendents recently -- and with Detroit, Atlanta and Broward County, Florida, still on the hunt. As failing urban school districts around the country ask who is fit to lead them, Anderson's selection provides one more piece of the puzzle.
"There's no clear talent pool," Noguera said. "But it looks like we're back to trying educators."
Who is Cami Anderson?
After ten years of teaching, Anderson worked as executive director for Teach for America as well as chief program officer for New Leaders for New Schools. Her credentials, Pallas said, are reminiscent of those of a much more recognizable name in education reform: Michelle Rhee, who formerly headed Washington, D.C.'s public schools.
"There are a lot of comparisons to Michelle Rhee, who didn't have the district-level experience," Pallas said. "They have similar backgrounds in similar organizations." Pallas said that Newark now is often compared to Washington, D.C. in its pre-Rhee days. "There's a kind of institutional culture of a failing system, and figuring out how to disrupt that is challenging," he said.
Rhee and Anderson differ in name recognition -- few casual education observers knew Anderson's name until last week. "Rhee became a public face of reform in the district, and I don't know that anyone could have named one of her deputies prior to her departure," Pallas said. "It's striking to see someone who has similar background characteristics but who's coming into Newark with much less of a public profile."
In New York, where Anderson served as superintendent for alternative schools, supporters lauded her results-oriented approach that shuttered failing programs, while critics complained about high turnover rates within her schools.
Lately, she's been busy transitioning. So busy, in fact, that she didn't make the time to talk to The Huffington Post. Her first day included a press appearance with Mayor Cory Booker and Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) -- and heckling from parents as she exited a school.
That first day in her new city was emblematic of the challenges that await her as she tries to fix Newark's schools. As an editorial in The Star-Ledger noted, Newark's gritty politics is "not for wimps." Anderson is not native to Newark, a factor that can elicit distrust. She's also the first white superintendent in 40 years. Beyond that, the governance system in Newark is different from that of other cities: In 1995, the state intervened, so New Jersey now controls Newark's education. Meanwhile, Booker, though he has no legal control over Newark's schools, has made education a key issue -- and has raised $43 million in private funding to begin matching Zuckerberg's gift.
"It's an extremely difficult situation that she's walking into," said Richard Cammarieri, a former school board member who served on the committee that met with the final superintendent candidates. "We have state control. You'll get the sense that she'll have a commissioner, governor and a mayor looking over her shoulder. The commissioner has, with the complicity of the mayor, made things murky in terms of who's in charge."
Junius Williams, director of Rutgers University's Abbott Leadership Institute, which engages Newark parents in education reform, was similarly skeptical. "She's going to pay for a lack of faith people had in the process which seemed to not involve very much community engagement," he said. "Parents want to see someone who is inependent from the state ... and who is free from the ideology which seems to have settled upon many big cities."
He added that the parents he's spoken to want Anderson to recognize the good programs and schools in Newark, not just tear into the entire system. "We're not starting from scratch here," he said.
Noguera said that there have been some successful reforms -- he pointed to programs for English language learners -- but the patchwork of programs has yielded a disjointed system. "There's often no coordination. There's no larger strategy," he said.
In public statements since her appointment, Anderson has striven to paint herself as a pragmatist. In sharing her thoughts on the role of charter schools, she pointed to her time in District 79, when she closed failing schools when "children and literally their lives were at stake." She added that Newark needs "multiple pathways" for education.
What's immediately next for her are budget negotiations that could include layoffs for up to 400 school employees. Contract talks with the local teachers union have been stalled. And she is charged with determining the use of Zuckerberg's gift.