An education plan at the center of Newark, New Jersey's, vitriolic mayoral campaign became much more real this week when school officials provided families with key information about where their children will attend school next year.
The One Newark plan for state-run public schools in New Jersey's largest city was announced in December, and since has been met with fierce opposition by parents, public education advocates and local politicians, including Ras Baraka, who declared victory in Tuesday's mayoral election. At its core, the plan seeks to create “100 excellent schools” for the chronically failing district by expanding charter schools, starting a universal enrollment system that increases school choice, and repurposing or redesigning other schools to consolidate resources or provide students with better facilities.
Some critics have attacked the plan as a plot orchestrated by state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson to start privatizing the school district. Others have said the plan’s broad vision lacks specifics.
“I think you have people out there who are supportive of the status quo. They liked things the way they were,” Ruben Roberts, the school district executive director of community affairs and engagement, told The Huffington Post. “It’s about creating options for families and it's kind of hard to think to that people can be upset and angry about creating options for families.”
The letters sent home to parents this week seek to assuage at least some of the concerns. On Friday, the district sent enrollment decision letters to families who participated in the plan’s universal enrollment system, which allowed students to rank their top eight choices for schools in one application. On Wednesday, days after an article in The New Yorker decreed “children’s safety” as the biggest concern of the plan, which did not outline transportation options for students who would no longer attend neighborhood schools, the district announced that it would indeed provide busing for some students.
Still, questions remain about the plan’s implementation after Tuesday's mayoral election of Baraka. While former mayor Cory Booker heavily prioritized the brand of school reform promoted by the One Newark plan and helped facilitate the highly publicized $100 million donation to the district from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Baraka took issue with the plan.
“It’s a one-person plan not a 'One Newark' plan,” Baraka told The Huffington Post in February. “There needs to be moratorium and [the plan] needs to be evaluated one step at a time.”
For her part, Anderson said she suspects the One Newark rollout may have followed a different narrative in a year that didn't feature a mayoral election.
“I think it would have still been contentious don’t get me wrong,” Anderson said. “It wasn’t until the election hit, that’s what made it untenable in terms of just having it be a good conversation … But we’ll see, hopefully cooler heads will prevail after the election.”
Under the One Newark plan, as in previous years, the district will provide bus tickets to K-8 students attending schools more than two miles from their homes, and to high school students who live more than 2.5 miles away. A free shuttle service will be provided to some students whose previous schools are being taken over by charters or being moved to a separate location.
“We’ve always known transportation was a challenge and that makes tons of sense because Newark has a lot of challenges with safety," Anderson said. "What we needed to understand was what the demand was going to be for families wanting to move outside their neighborhoods."
The district is boasting success about the universal enrollment process, which allowed students to rank their top eight choices for schools. Universal enrollment decisions were delayed several weeks, but Anderson said that of the 12,600 families who participated, 88 percent received a match school, and 71 percent were matched to one of their top five selections. The 12 percent of families who did not receive a match school may reapply with a second universal enrollment round opening later this month.
“We’ve seen a lot of families show that they want to participate in choice and the notion that it’s equitable and that students who are struggling and students with disabilities are at the front of the line, those are things we’re very proud of,” Anderson said.
Newark's universal enrollment figures so far appear to lag behind those of other districts. Denver launched a universal enrollment system in 2010, matching 83 percent of students with one of their top three choices during the 2011–2012 school year. In New Orleans, 84 percent were matched with one of their top three choices in 2012.
Newark's universal enrollment system matches students to their school choices based on an algorithm that gives preference to siblings, special education students and students in close geographic proximity to a selected schools. Anderson said equity for students who may lack resources is a key part of the plan.
But not everyone has seen One Newark as a plan that promotes equality. In January, Anderson and her senior staff left a rowdy school board meeting after a local activist questioned the plan's fairness and made a comment about Anderson's biracial child. “Do you not want for our brown babies what you want for your brown baby?” Natasha Allen reportedly asked Anderson.
In response, Anderson and her staff decided to stop attending such meetings, led by the democratically elected school board, which acts in an advisory capacity. This has perpetuated criticism that the administration lacks transparency and community outreach –- a claim the administration vigorously disputes.
“It became a circus, it became an unsafe environment. [We will return] once there’s established some sense of decorum in that space," Roberts said.
Now that the election is over, Roberts said he hoped things may turn around.
“I would say that we are very interested and willing to develop a positive relationship with the school advisory board," Roberts said. "As we look at this past year, it was a strained relationship, and there are lots of things that added to that. We are very eager to see how we can move this relationship forward."