On their first day back at school today, the students of Newark, N.J., may be too focused on reconnecting with friends and meeting new teachers to notice, but a number of much bigger things have changed since they left for the summer earlier this year. The first is that evidence of the $100 million donation made by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg to the city of Newark one year ago this month is beginning to take shape, and the second is that the city has a new superintendent in 39-year-old Teach for America veteran Cami Anderson.
Mayor Cory Booker, known for his magnanimous nature and Twitter-friendly style of leadership, sounds as delighted as anyone of the more than 40,000 kids who started their first day of school today. "I'm extraordinarily excited," Mayor Booker said. "This the most fluid first day I can remember."
And while the Zuckerberg money is clearly a primary focus and resource for Newark's school system, Booker, who dismissed the recently filed ACLU lawsuit against Newark for refusing to release emails exchanged between the mayor and Zuckerberg as "a red herring, a distraction," is quick to attribute much of the first day's fluidity to Anderson, who has clearly hit the ground running and has led most of the principal training sessions and curriculum development herself. "Every principal I've talked to, I've never heard them speak so highly of a superintendent, and it's because they feel they have a direct connection to her," Booker said. "A lot of the bureaucracy that used to weigh them down and pull them out of classrooms has been eliminated by her. She's a bureaucracy buster."
Anderson, who moved to Newark from Harlem with her partner and young child following her appointment in May, is equally enthusiastic and excited about the new year and her role in it. "It's been a great day," she said. "I've been out and about, seeing schools all morning." The former head of New York City's alternative school division and classroom teacher ("I started teaching Montessori school before I learned to drive.") said the Zuckerberg money is nice, but that her main priority is to make sure the Newark school system's public dollars are properly deployed first, in order for her to gauge how best to use the more flexible philanthropic dollars. To date, three brand new alternative schools have been opened with grant money from the Zuckerberg donation -- Bard High School Early College, Newark BRIDGES and Newark Leadership Academy -- and more than a dozen existing schools have started back up with extended learning hours.
"People don't realize that public money is very restrictive," Anderson said. There are very specific ways public education money can be spent, she added, so "it's important that we have a two-pronged approach." Citing an example, Anderson said it would have been extremely difficult to fund the research and development required for the new schools that opened today with public dollars alone. According to the office of communications for Mayor Booker, Bard High School Early College offers students an accelerated curriculum with two years of free tuition at a liberal arts program, a New Jersey high school diploma and an associate's degree in liberal arts from Bard College. Newark BRIDGES and Newark Leadership Academy focus on providing leadership guidance and learning alternatives to youth who have left the traditional education system.
The mayor, who has long been a champion of education reform, said it's too premature to outline fully how the Zuckerberg donation has specifically affected the city, but he expects to have an in-depth strategy in place by the actual date of the anniversary, Sept. 24, and after Superintendent Anderson "finishes her top-to-bottom diagnostic of her school openings and efforts." He's optimistic that by the end of 2011, the evaluation will have expanded to encompass the broader picture.
"I think we're going to be able to say by the end of the year, 'This is not just what we're doing with the Facebook money, but this is how Newark, New Jersey, is going to transform its public education system.'"
CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story stated that the Bard High School Early College program offers students the opportunity to earn an associate's degree in art, when in fact the degree is in liberal arts. This has been corrected.