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Local Control Return in Newark: Opportunities for Community Engagement

Last week, New Jersey state officials voted to relinquish the control it has had over Newark Public Schools for more than 20 years.

In 1995, in the wake of scandal and falling student performance, the state assumed financial, operational, and instructional control of the school system, appointing its own superintendent to make final decisions.

Since then, and especially in recent years, the district has made slow but substantial progress. As David W. Chen reports in the New York Times, the graduation rate is now 77 percent, up from 54 percent in 1995. Newark now ranks in the top quarter of similar urban school systems in achievement on state tests. And, teacher retention is improving.

This, despite ongoing power struggles between local and state officials and a rotating door of leaders with different philosophies on what’s best for the district.

Putting a premium on community input

As the New York Times reports, much of the 2000’s saw clashes between state-appointed superintendents and community members.

The opening of new charter schools, along with the creation of an open-enrollment system that led to the closing of several neighborhood schools, were met with criticism from community members who felt cut out of the decision-making process.

In 2015, Gov. Chris Christie appointed a new superintendent, Christopher D. Cerf, who forged a working relationship with Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka.

Together the two leaders invited community input, which eventually led to improvements to the district’s open-enrollment system.

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The power of partnerships

While engaging parents, faculty, and other individual community members is vital to any district’s success, the key to effective community engagement extends to other relationships, such as those the district maintains with local businesses and nonprofits.

To identify avenues for stronger outside investment, the Times reports, the district  partnered with area institutions, including Rutgers-Newark and others.

Though controversial, the district also famously accepted a $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Going beyond academics

As with many districts across the country, Newark officials have discovered that to properly support their students’ performance, they must also support the health, safety, and wellbeing of the broader community.

With help from Zuckerberg’s donation, Newark established a series of “community schools” that provide social services and health support during and after the school day ends. The idea is to help students and their families deal with the challenges of everyday life, so that students can focus harder on the challenges of the school day.

Despite the efforts and much progress, Newark isn’t completely out of the woods yet, the Times reports.

Chronic absenteeism, discipline issues, and violence are just a few of the issues that the district continues to face. The difference? It’s now the responsibility of local district officials to effectively address such problems.

As Marques-Aquil Lewis, chairman of the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board, tells the New York Times:

“Our district has been through a lot of storms, and there were some people who jumped off the boat. But there were some people who stayed on, and now everyone wants to come to Newark and be a part of history.”

What do you think about Newark’s turnaround? How does your school or district use community engagement to improve school climate and student success? Tell us in the comments.