Scene: Large corner office, 10th (and top) floor of an old downtown Newark office building. Nice navy-blue sofa, very large desk, executive-style conference table, framed pictures and posters on the walls, floor-to-ceiling windows on two corners, and doors that open onto a rooftop deck.
"This is a super office," I exclaim, asking Cami Anderson, the new superintendent of Newark schools, to tell me a little bit about it.
Sitting a bit stiffly on the sofa, Anderson winces. "I hate it. My ideal would be to take one of our old, gorgeous schools and make it a place of bustling collaboration and activity between adults and children," she says. "That would actually look and feel quite different than our corporate tower here."
This California blond is clearly not your ordinary educator, which could be the best thing that has happened to the perennially failing Newark Public Schools (NPS) since--well, perhaps, ever. The state took over the district in 1995, to little effect. With 75 schools and almost 40,000 students, Newark is the largest district in New Jersey, and with graduation rates hovering just about 50 percent, one of the most troubled. Enrollment is down some 9,000 students since 2001. As the New York Times reported when Anderson took over, in June of 2011, "Cami Anderson faces the monumental task of rescuing an urban school system that has long been mired in low achievement, high turnover and a culture of failure, despite decades of state intervention."
It was, said the Times, with exquisite understatement, "the ultimate high-risk opportunity,"
Even with the popular and smart Newark mayor Cory Booker on her side and a $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, she'll need all the help she can get. As even Chris Christie, the take-no-prisoners Garden State governor, said at the press conference announcing Anderson's appointment, "It took us a long time to get to where we are now [in Newark], and no leader, no matter how good, is going to be able to turn this around overnight."
It would have been hard to find anyone disagreeing with the blunt-spoken governor on that one.
"Judge me by my actions," Anderson said at the time. "Let me roll up my sleeves and dive in. Then we'll talk."
And talk we did, last May, just as Anderson was finishing her first year on the job. "The first year of anything is tough because you're saying, 'Trust me. Trust me. Trust me," she said. "But you haven't really had time to, 'Show me. Show me. Show me."
Shaking Things Up
In fact, Anderson showed her stuff immediately.
"I had to make some very important leadership decisions," she recalled about those first days on the job, "right then." And since Anderson's "theory of change" is about "great school leaders," she "ran around to as many schools as possible to try to get a sense of the quality of our principals, most particularly those who I'd heard deep concerns about or had heard were awesome and were approaching their tenure date."
The result? Seventeen new principals when school opened the following September. Major shakeup. Indeed, Anderson's first year in Newark was marked by serious change--she closed six schools, reorganized her central administration team, cut 120 jobs--and marked the beginning of a deep systemic overhaul, financial and pedagogical.
So far, so good. There have been the fights over the school closings and the upset of a system being (rather quickly) turned inside out, but as friends predicted, Anderson's engaging personal style won many people over. She did not arrive with an agenda, but she did have a clear vision of where to start--even before the principal shakeup.
"The first thing is to define success," she said. "And that's pretty simple. Every kid of school age in Newark is in a school that puts him or her on the path to graduate from college. …