$100m later, Newark schools still struggle

By Shanna O’Mara

 Dale Russakoff speaks to audience members in the Mercer Room about the plan to revamp Newark schools on Oct. 28.
Dale Russakoff speaks to audience members in the Mercer Room about the plan to revamp Newark schools on Oct. 28.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to Newark’s schools with the intent to transform them through programs and advancing technology. However, the execution of his plan did not accomplish all that he hoped.

Author of The New York Times bestseller The Prize: Who’s In Charge of America’s Schools?, Dale Russakoff spoke on Oct. 28 about how money is allocated in urban education.

The event at Rider was sponsored by the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics.

While watching The Oprah Winfrey Show on Sept. 24, 2010, Russakoff admitted she was “absolutely electrified to see this very young billionaire” make his pledge, and “also to hear [United States Sen.] Cory Booker and [Gov.] Chris Christie talk about using it to revolutionize education in Newark, to do what so many people agreed was the most important challenge facing the country: at last to make public education work for the poorest children.”

From that, Russakoff began reporting for her first book. Reporting gave her “an opportunity to look from the ground level at the working of the education reform movement.”

While investigating, Russakoff found that students in Newark charter schools tended to be more successful than those in public schools.

“While charter schools do not outperform public schools on a national basis, children in Newark charters do perform better on standardized tests than their district school peers,” she said.

This disparity between Newark schools and those of other American urban cities dates back to the 1930s, according to Russakoff.

During the Great Depression, “the school system collapsed along with the city,” she said. “It had become so corrupt and so neglectful of children that in 1995 the state of New Jersey seized control of it. One statement in the investigative report said it all: ‘The longer children remain in the Newark public schools, the less likely they are to be successful.’”

This historical context helped Russakoff get her point across to students in the audience.

“It helped that she provided information on the origins of the issue,” said sophomore political science major Jelani Walker, who is a graduate of Newark schools.

The state was in control of these schools for 15 years until the two politicians came together to work on education reform.

“Booker and Christie wanted to expand charter schools, close failing district schools, revolutionize the teacher’s union contract so as to fire the weakest teachers and reward the best ones with merit pay, and create a state-of-the-art data system for the remaining district schools so as to hold everyone accountable for student improvement,” Russakoff said.

Booker assured Zuckerberg that, with this plan, schools would perform efficiently, students would test better and he could take this model “to one city after the next, solving the education crisis in all of urban America.”

“He did end up spending that $100 million and matching funders spent another $100 million, but five years have now elapsed, and there’s no model of educational excellence in Newark,” Russakoff said.

Russakoff began looking into the strategic teaching plans of district schools, finding that many children were affected by outside forces that hindered their performance in class. All too often, children were exposed to drugs, alcohol and violence at a young age.

“One thing I learned about education in cities is the ecosystem,” Russakoff said. “Changes in one area have consequences in another, many of them unintended.”

Negativity at home can affect performance in the classroom, she said.

Although the money was spent on system changes so that these schools resembled businesses, Zuckerberg, Booker and Christie failed to fund social reform that would improve the focus of students. Many students “simply can’t learn because of trauma from their daily lives in Newark,” Russakoff said.

Sophomore political science major Lilly Miller was taken aback by the choices Booker and Christie made in regards to reforming the educational system.

“I was surprised that the money wasn’t actually given to change the quality of the education, but actually, it went to systematic changes,” Miller said. “I was surprised by the facts she presented. The way she explained it was definitely down-to-earth. I was able to understand it even though I’m not an expert on this subject.”

The money allocation plan was formulated without the input of Newark teachers, administrators or residents. Had the governor and funder engaged the best teachers and administrators, this might have resulted in “a very different approach than the one they took in Newark.”

“The money donated by Mark Zuckerberg and others is doubling the number of children in Newark charter schools,” Russakoff said. “This is, in most cases, a significant improvement for those children. But 60 percent of children in Newark remain in district schools, and the public system is in distress in part as a result of the exodus of children and dollars to the charter schools. To make ends meet, the district has been closing and consolidating schools, laying off social workers and other support staff and transferring thousands of students. From kindergarten through eighth grade in traditional public schools, performance has gone down, not up, in the years since the Zuckerberg gift.”

According to Russakoff, $60 million was spent on expanding charter schools, $50 million on new teachers’ contracts that holds them accountable for effective instruction and $20 million was spent on school consultants, many of whom are paid up to $1,000 a day.

By simply stating the facts, Russakoff remained detached from the issue while providing all of the information her audience members needed to take a stance of their own.

“This was among the first times it was brought up objectively,” Walker said. “There was no bias. Usually, I have to sift through information that was given to me, depending on which side it was provided by, but she was objective. That was refreshing.”

Zuckerberg and his wife have recently announced that they will continue to invest in the American education system and “will work to understand the desires of communities and the complex needs of children they hope to help,” Russakoff said.

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