Superintendent search

Former principal Roger Leon chosen as Newark’s new superintendent

Former principal and veteran administrator Roger Leon has been chosen as Newark’s new schools chief — its first since the city regained control of its schools.

In a unanimous vote Tuesday night, the school board chose Leon — a Newark native backed by local elected officials — over two candidates with extensive experience in other large urban districts, but whose outsider status put them at a disadvantage. The son of Cuban immigrants, Leon takes the reins of a system whose population has become increasingly Hispanic: At 46 percent of the Newark Public Schools enrollment, Hispanic students now outnumber black students, who make up 44 percent of the enrollment.

In opting for Leon, the board also passed over A. Robert Gregory, another former Newark principal and the district’s interim superintendent, who rose through the ranks under the previous state-appointed superintendent, Christopher Cerf — which some critics saw as a blemish on his record. The board actually picked Leon as superintendent once before, in 2015. But the state education commissioner, who still controlled the district at that time, ignored the board’s choice and appointed Cerf.

The board’s decision to again tap Leon seemed to signal a definitive break from the era of sweeping, controversial changes enacted by outsiders — namely, Cerf and his predecessor, Cami Anderson. Instead, after the state ended its decades-long takeover of the district in February and put the board back in charge of the schools, the board’s choice for superintendent suggests that it will rely on local talent and ideas to guide New Jersey’s largest school system in the new era of local control.

“After 22 years of being under state control, this is a new day,” said School Board Chair Josephine Garcia after Tuesday’s vote. “We look forward to working with the new superintendent.”

Leon grew up in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, where he attended the Hawkins Street School. He graduated from Science Park High School, the highly competitive magnet school, where he returned as a substitute math teacher while still a student at Rutgers University. He later coached the school’s renowned debate team.

He went on to teach middle-school algebra, then became principal of Dr. William H. Horton School and later University High School of the Humanities. For the past decade, he has been an assistant superintendent in the district.

As deputy chief academic officer under former superintendent Clifford Janey, he helped oversee several major policy changes, including new graduation requirements and district-wide grading standards. During that process, he recruited hundreds of parents, experts, and community members to join advisory committees to help craft the new policies.

More recently, he has played less of a policymaking role, instead helping to organize district-wide initiatives like a book-giveaway program for students. He also often authors the proclamations that the district awards to distinguished students and educators.

At a forum on Friday where the four superintendent finalists introduced themselves to the public, Leon said the district needs “a clear direction” for the future. He said his vision includes an “advanced technological curriculum” in schools, a focus on social-emotional learning, teacher training, and public-private partnerships to bring additional resources into schools.

“I will inherently be a proficient and influential agent of change,” he said, “because anything short of that is unacceptable.”

Leon arrives in his new position with a strong base of support, which was evident after Tuesday’s vote, when the audience erupted into cheers. In addition to the many parents and educators he has crossed paths with during his 25 years working in the district, he is also said to have close ties with State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, an influential lawmaker based in the politically powerful North Ward.

While Leon served under both Anderson and Cerf, he was far enough removed from the decision-making to escape the wrath of critics who opposed their policies, which included closing some district schools and overseeing the expansion of the charter-school sector. On Tuesday, John Abeigon, the head of the Newark Teachers Union, which clashed bitterly with Anderson and Cerf, said he looked forward to working with Leon.

“Once the new superintendent is sworn in,” he said, “we can begin rebuilding some of the more positive aspects of our district that were destroyed under the corporate control of Cerf.”

While the board has now officially offered Leon the position, it must still negotiate the terms of his contract. He will then start his new role on July 1.

Leon was one of four finalists selected by a search committee after a national search. A state plan had called for the board to choose from just three finalists. But someone on the search committee was unhappy with the three who were chosen and asked the state commissioner to allow a fourth finalist — despite the objections of some other committee members.

While the audience at Tuesday’s board meeting loudly cheered the board’s final decision, many people still criticized the search process. The board kept the names of the finalists secret until shortly before Friday’s forum, where audience members were not permitted to ask the candidates questions.

Still, even critics of the process said they were eager to work with the superintendent.

“The board made their decision,” said Wilhelmina Holder, a longtime parent activist. “So now we’re going to have to respect that decision and work on behalf of the children.”

'Clarity 2020'

Superintendent León calls on Newarkers to help shape his plan for city’s schools

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León unveiled his strategy to improve the district at Central High School on Wednesday.

Newark Superintendent Roger León unveiled his strategy for transforming the school system at a community forum Wednesday, the first of several meetings where residents will be invited to help shape the plan.

The strategy, dubbed “NPS Clarity 2020,” calls for closer cooperation among schools and between them and the community. The strategy’s premise is that schools must challenge students academically while also attending to their physical and emotional needs.

Over the next few months, officials said, the district will turn the strategy into a detailed, three-year plan with help from families, students, and partner organizations, who will be invited to planning sessions in each of the city’s five wards. The final plan will be released in June.

“How are we going to do this? Everybody in here — all of you,” León said to hundreds of mostly invited guests at Central High School. “There’s a lot of hard work we’re about to do, and we’re not going to be scared about it.”

While Wednesday marked the start of public feedback on the strategy, León has been referencing his plan at meetings for months. Some leaders, including Mayor Ras Baraka and a few board members, have previously urged León to publicly share his plan, along with specific goals he hopes to achieve.

Baraka, who was Central’s principal when León was an assistant superintendent, made a brief appearance at Wednesday’s event to lend his support to León’s vision. He said the two have been working in particular on a plan to get local universities to enroll more Newark Public School graduates.

“I just want people to know that the superintendent and I are on the same page,” said Baraka, who famously clashed with León’s state-appointed predecessor, Cami Anderson. “And it hasn’t been that way for a very long time.”

Baraka is also part of a new advisory committee that will provide input on the plan. The 24-member committee includes teachers, principals, and advocates, along with business, higher-education, and philanthropic leaders.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Newark residents wrote down challenges and opportunities in the district during Wednesday’s forum.

The district hosted a similar series of public forums in 2016 under Superintendent Christopher Cerf, which led to the district’s current three-year roadmap.

The district has hired a Newark-based consultancy, Creed Strategies, to lead the current planning process. The firm’s founder and president, Lauren Wells, is a former advisor to Baraka and previously helped spearhead a high-profile reform effort in Newark called the Global Village School Zone.

Started in 2010, the program lengthened the school day and added extra support services at seven Central Ward schools, including Central High School. It also brought the schools’ teachers together for joint trainings and made sure their courses were in sync so students could easily progress from the elementary schools to Central. However, Anderson abruptly ended the effort in 2012.

Now, Wells is helping incorporate elements of that program’s approach into León’s strategy. At the forum, Wells described some tenets of the strategy: recognizing and addressing poverty’s effects on students; helping schools work together rather than in isolation; taking advantage of the resources that families and local organizations have to offer schools; and measuring student success on a variety of scales.

“They will be risk-takers, they will be sought-after,” she said. “They will pass assessments — and not just the PARCC, but the bar.”

Attendees were also given a document with an elaborate diagram representing the “Clarity 2020” approach, which district employees received at an August conference where León previewed his plans. The diagram features a dozen “keys to 2020,” such as higher education and social services, and six “game changers,” including alumni and internships, but provides no details beyond those broad headings.

The district has not yet posted the document online or announced dates for the forums in each ward. León declined to be interviewed after the event.

Several attendees said they were energized by Wednesday’s forum, which included small-group brainstorming sessions where participants listed challenges and opportunities in the district.

“You don’t usually have a superintendent that asks questions,” said Nitia Preston, the community engagement specialist at Peshine Avenue School. “He’s asking, ‘What change do you want? What strengths do you have?’ I love that.”

six months in

As Newark superintendent makes whirlwind changes, some residents seek ‘clarity’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León has faced calls to share more details of his agenda. On Wednesday, he unveiled his "NPS Clarity 2020" strategy.

A whirlwind of activity. A legion of initiatives. A blitz of meetings. Pick your metaphor — Superintendent Roger León has been busy.

In his first six months as Newark schools chief, León has overhauled the district’s central office; launched a wide-ranging assortment of programs involving high schools, testing, technology, and more; and offered a litany of wildly ambitious promises, including a vow to make Newark “the highest-performing school district in the country.”

León’s maximalist approach has thrilled many residents who find it invigorating to hear a Newark native present a vision of greatness for a school system that, until February, spent two decades under state control. In recent years, the 36,000-student district has attracted national notoriety mainly for its struggles and the pitched battles that erupted when outside reformers tried to reshape the city’s schools.

But León’s jam-packed agenda and sweeping promises have also raised concerns, even among those rooting for him to succeed — an unease that León may be hoping to address Wednesday evening at a community forum on the district’s future.

Observers have privately asked how the new leader’s disparate initiatives fit together, and whether he can pull them all off simultaneously. Occasionally, their frustration has bubbled to the surface, as when some board members refused to approve some of León’s requests until they knew more about his plans or when Mayor Ras Baraka urged León to make those plans public.

Even the name of León’s elaborate strategy — “NPS Clarity 2020” — has baffled some people, who are unsure when it starts and what it entails. They are hoping the forum will address some of those concerns.

As a former Newark Public Schools educator and administrator, León brings a wealth of experience and institutional knowledge to the job, said Antoinette Baskerville Richardson, the mayor’s chief education officer. While León obviously “has a big vision,” she added, it is imperative that he share detailed plans with the public — especially after 22 years of state control, when officials had license to make wholesale changes without locals’ consent.

“I think a lot of stakeholders are looking for more clarity — and it’s up to the superintendent to bring that,” she said. “Folks are looking for substantive plans.”

After a quarter-century working in the district, León started July 1 with strong convictions about what approaches work in schools — and which don’t. But as he’s rushed to reverse policies he considers ineffective and enact alternatives, schools and partner groups have often had to scramble to keep up.

In June, he tried to oust top district officials before informing the school board, which then rejected some of the staffing changes. In September, he axed a program that extended the hours of struggling schools — resulting in scheduling changes just days before classes began. Last month, he cast doubt on a program that brought extra services to several South Ward schools, leaving the schools and their partner organizations uncertain about its future.

At the same time, he has undertaken several efforts of his own. While most new superintendents are eager to start making their mark, León’s aggressive timeline and ambitious agenda have run up against roadblocks.

He is planning a redesign of the city’s high schools, including changes to the admissions process for magnet schools and new career-themed academies inside the traditional schools. However, the new magnet admissions test was recently postponed, and the district has not formally announced the themes and partners of the new academies. Meanwhile, the enrollment period for next school year is already underway.

León has also promised to tackle one of the district’s most dire and long-standing challenges — absenteeism. One in three Newark students missed the equivalent of a month or more of school days last year, qualifying them as “chronically absent.” The crux of León’s plan for getting students to school is to rehire attendance counselors who were laid off by his predecessor. However, labor rules have complicated the rehiring process, leaving many of the counselor positions unfilled five months into the school year.

Other new superintendents might be content with these already ambitious goals: revamping the district’s high schools and combating severe absenteeism. But León has not stopped there. He has personally reviewed student transcripts and conducted teacher trainings; negotiated changes to the city’s enrollment system with charter-school leaders; and ordered comprehensive audits of the district’s teaching materials and facilities.

León has described different parts of his agenda to different audiences at meetings large and small with parents, district employees, students, union leaders, and local philanthropies. However, members of the public who aren’t invited to all of these gatherings and can’t make the public school-board meetings may have a limited view of León’s entire agenda. His administration seldom holds press conferences or posts summaries of his initiatives on the district website, and reporters’ questions often go unanswered. (A spokeswoman did not respond to questions for this story.)

Deborah Smith-Gregory, president of the Newark NAACP and a former district teacher, said she is eager to learn how León will incorporate all of the feedback he has received into a clear plan with measurable goals.

“He’s doing a lot of outreach,” she said. “But after you get all of those opinions, how do you prioritize what you’re going to pay attention to and implement something that can be measured?”

León may begin to answer that question at the forum Wednesday evening at Central High School. A public notice for the event says it will include a discussion of “goals and timelines” for Clarity 2020, along with a 10-year district roadmap León is crafting and various policy reviews he is conducting.

The event will also kick off a series public meetings intended to gather input for a new three-year strategic plan for the district, according to the notice. León’s predecessor, Christopher Cerf, organized a similar planning process in 2016 to create the district’s current strategic plan.

Whether Wednesday’s forum will leave the public with a clearer sense of León’s overarching vision remains to be seen. But some of the superintendent’s most ardent supporters say they already know enough.

“He’s planning to turn this into the most successful district in the state,” said Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon. “What’s obtuse about that?”