The four candidates vying to become Newark’s next superintendent each claimed to be the best person for the job during a much-anticipated forum on Friday.
The two-hour event at Science Park High School was the public’s first opportunity to hear from the finalists — who include two Newark natives and two outsiders — and its last before the city school board is expected to vote for their choice on Tuesday. Whoever is chosen will become the first full superintendent to lead the system since it was returned to local control this year after a decades-long state takeover.
The finalists are former Baltimore city schools chief Andres Alonso; Newark Interim Superintendent A. Robert Gregory; Newark Assistant Superintendent Roger Leon; and Sito Narcisse, chief of schools for Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee. They were selected by a seven-person search committee who considered candidates from across the country.
Each finalist was given 30 minutes on Friday evening to introduce himself and describe his qualifications for the high-profile position. Unlike some districts, the school board did not interview the candidates during the public event. (Instead, they were scheduled to hold closed-door interviews on Saturday.) And the roughly 200 audience members were not allowed to ask questions.
Denise Crawford, a parent who attended the forum, said that community members should have been part of the search committee, which included three school board members and four people appointed by the mayor and the state education commissioner. But Tafshier Cosby, whose son attends a Newark charter school, said Friday’s event offered the public a chance to hear each candidate’s vision for the 35,000-student Newark Public Schools system.
“Whoever has the best plan for moving NPS forward,” she said, “that is who I’m rooting for.”
Below are highlights from each candidate’s remarks in the order that they spoke on Friday.
As an outsider, Narcisse promised to become part of the community if he is hired.
“My wife and I will be living in the city,” he said, adding that he would shop at the local grocery stores and attend a local church. “So I’ll have a vested interest.”
Narcisse, who is the son of Haitian immigrants, has overseen schools in five different districts in four states. He was a principal in the Pittsburgh and Boston school systems, and a top official in two large Maryland school districts.
In 2016, he became the second-highest-ranking official chief in the Metro Nashville system, which includes 169 schools serving 88,000 students. He recently applied to become superintendent of a Florida district, but was not selected.
If he led Newark, he said he would push to pay teachers and classroom aides more and would be open with the public about how he allocates funding. He also vowed to hire Newark residents for positions within his administration.
“I will not be doing things to you,” he said. “I will be doing things with you.”
Before he became a New York City school official and later the chief of Baltimore City Public Schools, Alonso spent 12 years teaching in Newark schools.
Now, he wants to return to where he started.
“This is the job I always wanted,” he told the crowd. (He was recently in the running to become Los Angeles’ superintendent, but said he withdrew when the Newark position became available.)
A Cuban immigrant, Alonso said he arrived at school in Union City, New Jersey when he was 12 not knowing how to speak English. He went on to study at Columbia University and Harvard, where he is now a professor in the Graduate School of Education.
From 1987 to 1998, he taught in Newark at a school for emotionally disturbed students and at Peshine Avenue Elementary School. During that period, he gained legal custody of one of his students.
In 2007, he became CEO of the Baltimore city school system, where he closed many low-performing schools, oversaw the expansion of the charter-school sector, and tied teacher pay to their performance. During his six years as schools chief, he said he had “an extraordinary relationship” with the teachers union and with parents.
On Friday, he said that former Mayor Cory Booker and former state education commissioner Christopher Cerf had asked him in 2012 to run Newark’s school system. He turned down the job, he said, because he did not want to carry out a premade “blueprint” for the district. (Instead, Cerf became superintendent.)
Now that the district is back under local control, Alonso said he is ready to lead it.
“I want to come full circle,” he said. “I think I could help the system immensely.”
A. Robert Gregory
Gregory attended Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Newark before his family moved to Pennsylvania, where he eventually went to college and majored in education. At his college graduation, his grandmother urged him to return to his hometown.
“She whispered to me, ‘Come back home, the kids need you,’” said Gregory, whose father was a longtime Newark principal.
Gregory taught at Harold Wilson and Camden middle schools in Newark before founding American History High School, a well-regarded magnet school. In 2015, he was promoted to assistant superintendent of high schools and, last June, Cerf named him deputy superintendent. When Cerf stepped down in February, Gregory became interim superintendent.
In that role, he has increased spending on bilingual and special education and negotiated a contract that raises the wages of school cafeteria workers, security guards, and custodians, he said during his presentation. He also supported students who joined in a national school walkout to call for stricter gun laws, and he is planning a conference next month where teachers will be able to share classroom ideas.
“I am the educator,” he said, “who vows to work toward restoring trust while galvanizing this city around one common goal: high-quality education for all.”
León began by emphasizing his deep Newark roots and ties to each section of the city.
He said he was born in the Central Ward, lived in the South Ward, grew up in the East Ward, visited his godparents in the North Ward, and met his first good friends in the West Ward.
“The journey of Newark has been my journey,” said León, whose parents were Cuban immigrants.
A Science Park High School graduate, León went on to coach the magnet school’s renowned debate team for eight years. He later taught middle-school algebra before becoming principal of Dr. William H. Horton School and then University High School of the Humanities.
He has been an assistant superintendent for 10 years. If he becomes schools chief, León said he would invest in attendance counselors and mental-health services for students. He also said he would encourage students to travel abroad, and would make sure that parents have different types of schools to choose from.
His past accomplishments are evidence “of how high we will go, how fast we will get there,” he said, and “of how we will learn and do it together.”