Newark Superintendent Takes Controversial Approach to Saving City’s At-Risk School District

Cami Anderson, Newark, N.J.’s new superintendent appointed last May, has ruffled feathers in the majority black city with her novel and controversial approach to effecting change in its struggling school system. Anderson just hired 17 new principals that don’t have the traditionally accepted credentials to run the kinds of schools with challenges Newark schools present to dig the system out of the under-performing hole it’s in.

“She’s taking a real dramatic approach and bringing in younger leaders with little or no experience,” said Alturrick Kenney, a public affairs consultant who is a member of the city’s school advisory board. “That’s a great thing for their careers, but it could be a detriment for the district. It’s like with any basketball team: you bring in a group of rookies, and they will typically be outperformed by the veterans.”

But it wasn’t as much about their experience and education as much as it was their passion and ability to meet the students where they are.

The 39,000 student district has long been dogged by low achievement, high dropout rates, and discipline problems.  Immediately ousting those whom she deemed as ineffective principals, Anderson is looking to put a dent in those issues by giving younger — mostly under age 40 and from outside the city — more real-life experience professionals the opportunity to shine.  She received $200 million from high-profile donors — including facebook co-founder, Mark Zuckerberg — to facilitate her efforts.

Cami Anderson

“I believe a strong principal is the key to almost everything,”  Anderson said in an interview. “Where you have great performance, you have great principals, period, full stop. Where you have low performance, you have struggling principals. It’s not that complicated.”

Anderson said that before she came, principals in the city’s schools “were chosen through an informal and somewhat arbitrary process, based largely on recommendations from school employees, parents and political leaders,” according to  She chose to leverage her authority and go in another direction, simply because it wasn’t working.  Anderson has also veered from district policy to give all principals more autonomy to hire staff, and teamed up with a nonprofit group, New Leaders for New Schools, to develop what she called an “emerging leaders program.”

Her tactics have reportedly sparked complaints from some teachers, parents and community leaders, but Anderson is resolved that her plan is aptly robust.

“We carefully selected principals with the skill and will to drive teacher quality,” she told the Times.  The process by which she screened the new leaders involved over four hours of scrutiny and practical demonstration of the ability to lead, which she feels was fool-proof.

The gamut of backgrounds possessed by some in her new crop include: a math coach, a once-retired founding principal of a New York school, a leader of Newark charter school with an MBA, a co-founder of a nonprofit group working to end youth violence and an assistant principal of alternative schools and programs in New York. Their salaries range from $103,456 to $139,768, and the district has assembled a team of experienced administrators to help train, monitor and evaluate them.

Anderson has put her reputation on the line and her new position in jeopardy by instituting the changes that some don’t believe are the right answer for Newark schools, but in order to avoid the insanity of “doing the same the things over and over, while expecting different results,” it makes perfect sense. For the sake of struggling Newark youth — which includes a large number of blacks, hopefully the end will justify the means, and even beyond that, will yield a viable template for inner-city school systems to utilize in alleviating like challenges.

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