Community Engagement And PENewark

The greatest threat to the future of our country is what is happening at present in our schools. Too much is at stake for us not to pull together for the cause of our children.
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This week, I was surprised and disappointed to read a story filed by a leading news organization that mischaracterized the community engagement and response to the Partnership for Education in Newark (PENewark). In an effort to provide full transparency for the PENewark progress, what follows is a community update from Newark, New Jersey.

Last September marked an unprecedented time in the City of Newark. Faced with the historic opportunity to break the cycle of failure and low expectations in public education, we created a bi-partisan coalition among all levels of government and community leaders to launch the most comprehensive community outreach and engagement effort to solicit input from every voice within Newark.

In December 2010, PENewark succeeded in hosting 11 large-scale community forums, 25 mini-forums, knocked on 66,000 doors, received more than 20,000 surveys, and contacted 45,000 community members in total. Newarkers from every corner of the City shared their ideas, concerns, hopes and expectations on how to make Newark Public Schools the best in the nation.

The voices of our City were loud and clear. Our community meetings, forums and focus groups included teachers, activists, principals, parents, elected leaders, and clergy among others. There was surprising unanimity around many critical ideas and change strategies from extending the school day and learning time, to creating more robust efforts to fully engage parents in the process. More than this, as I personally participated in and led many meetings, people seemed tired of divisive rhetoric and strongly committed to bold community action.

I am so grateful that many of our higher education partners went even further to document our community's sentiments in extensive surveys. Reflected below is a summary of these survey results, excerpted from a report released on May 12, 2011, by Rutgers University and New York University:

• 82.5 percent of our residents rated the city's schools as "fair" or "poor."

• 82.4 percent of our residents supported giving Principals greater control over their schools.

• 74.3 percent supported replacing principals at low-performing schools.

• 69.2 percent were in favor of giving good teachers additional pay.

• 64.4 percent of residents favored replacing half the teachers at low-performing schools.

Our City's residents are actively and passionately involved in the education reform mission. While there will always be debate and even detractors, it is clear from every community forum that we must make bold change. This is my commitment: to embrace the community demand for bold and determined action. We as a community reject an education system that does not serve the genius of our children. We will, over the coming months and years, through numerous new strategies -- born from best practices and community input -- achieve excellence in public education outcomes for Newark students.

As we continue to make progress toward this goal, I also pledge to keep Newark's residents and especially parents, educators and our children at the center of this work, as it is the only way we can ensure our success. Everyone in our community will not always agree on every reform measure, but our cause is too critical to shut out any voice. In Newark, we understand that what happens in our schools has broad implications for our nation and, thus, we must keep the national education community closely and carefully informed about our progress.

The greatest threat to the future of our country is what is happening at present in our schools. Too much is at stake for us not to pull together for the cause of our children.

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