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Newark City of Learning Collaborative
Light from the setting sun reflects off a building in downtown Newark, N.J. Credit: AP Photo/Julio Cortez

In Newark, N.J., a collection of city officials, college leaders, community-based organizations, and corporations is engaged in a bold effort to raise college completion rates in the city. As I wrote in my last column, the Newark City of Learning Collaborative (NCLC) is seeking to increase the share of Newark residents with postsecondary credentials from 17 percent to 25 percent in the next decade. The hope is that creating a college-going culture in Newark will help revitalize the long-suffering city.

This is a challenging job, especially considering that the NCLC, which counts the Newark public school system as one of its members, has little influence on what’s happening day-to-day in the city’s struggling schools. Instead, the collaborative is mostly a bystander, as the state carries out an extremely controversial agenda to reform the city’s schools.

Related: One struggling city’s bold effort to increase its number of college graduates

The success of the collaborative ultimately depends, at least to some extent, on the ability of the K-12 system to significantly improve its performance in preparing students for college. But it is unclear whether this is a realistic expectation.

“With the high turnover of teachers and principals, many Barringer students didn’t know where they should turn to get recommendation letters for their college applications.”

“The K-12 piece is the weakest part of the collaborative right now,” says Wilhelmina Holder, a community activist who is involved with the collaborative. “If we ever got that piece done correctly, 25 percent would be a low-ball number.”

Newark’s public schools have been among the state’s weakest for decades, despite spending more per pupil than just about any district in the entire country. In 1995, conditions in Newark schools were so bad—and student performance so poor—that the state of New Jersey assumed control of the school district.

For two decades now, the state has been trying to overhaul Newark’s schools. A new effort began in 2010, when Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, flanked by Newark’s then-mayor Cory Booker and Gov. Chris Christie, announced on the Oprah Winfrey Show that he would donate $100 million over five years to Newark’s schools. (First, however, Booker had to raise another $100 million to match Zuckerberg’s gift.) In 2011, Gov. Christie appointed Cami Anderson, an education reformer who’d worked under New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, to head up these efforts as superintendent of Newark’s schools. Anderson had also worked on Booker’s first campaign for mayor of Newark, in 2002.

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Anderson’s school reform efforts culminated in 2014, with the introduction of the “One Newark” plan. Under this plan, students are no longer assigned schools according to the neighborhoods in which they live. Instead, families are able to list their preferences for schools and then a citywide lottery is held to determine school assignments. As a result of the plan, many families have seen their children spread across multiple schools or sent to schools far from their homes.

“One Newark” also called for shuttering or repurposing a number of schools. According to The Washington Post, the new policy “prompted mass firings of principals and teachers, and it led to numerous school closures and a sharp rise in the city’s reliance on charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run.” (To the delight of many Newark residents, Anderson stepped down from her post as superintendent last month.)

“Newark’s public schools have been among the state’s weakest for decades, despite spending more per pupil than just about any district in the entire country. In 1995, conditions in Newark schools were so bad—and student performance so poor—that the state of New Jersey assumed control of the school district.”

These changes have been disruptive to many students. Barringer High School, the oldest in the city, has had several different principals over the last few years. At the beginning of 2014-15, the new leadership was so disorganized that many students didn’t get class schedules or were given stop-gap ones that were valid for just a couple of days. A number of students complained that they were put into classes they’d already taken or didn’t need. At the same time, some classes were so over-crowded that there weren’t enough chairs—some students had to sit in windowsills.

Meanwhile, many classes were taught by substitutes who weren’t experts in the subject areas they were ostensibly teaching. “At Barringer, they had year-long substitutes. How is that going to prepare students for college?” asks Monica Hall, program coordinator at Newark’s Abbott Leadership Institute, which, among other things, teaches leadership skills to students.

Jessica Brown, who graduated from Barringer last month, told me in May, “I don’t know where my Spanish teacher went. She’s been gone since we took the PARCC test, and now we have a substitute, and he doesn’t know Spanish.”

“What’s the point of going to class if the teacher doesn’t know Spanish and he’s not teaching me anything?” she asked.

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With the high turnover of teachers and principals, many Barringer students didn’t know where they should turn to get recommendation letters for their college applications. “Because of the transition of faculty, they couldn’t find anyone to give them a recommendation,” says Holder, the community activist. “Many of the teachers had only been at the school for a year, and they didn’t know the students.”

The collaborative has been very careful to avoid getting caught up in all of the controversy surrounding the reform efforts, which have polarized the city. “There has been a lot of sturm and drang going on with Newark’s public schools at the moment,” says Roland Anglin, director of Rutgers University’s Joseph C. Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies, which is coordinating the NCLC’s efforts. “It really doesn’t touch the NCLC—because the NCLC is seen as above the fray, and we need to keep it above the fray.”

To its credit, the collaborative counts both the Mayor’s Office and leaders of the school system as members, even though they have been at each other’s throats over the K-12 reform efforts.

Related: Changing the incentives for colleges to enroll and graduate low-income students

Some members of the NCLC, however, have questioned the commitment of the school district’s leadership to the collaborative. “They are involved in name, but the support isn’t where it should be currently,” says Holder.

But Anglin insists that the school district has been “a good partner.” He says that the NCLC and Newark Public Schools have been working closely together on efforts to get disconnected youth back into school.

For their part, representatives from the schools are helping develop curricula for summer programs run by the collaborative that encourage high school students to apply to college and that help incoming first-year students adjust to college.

And while the collaborative isn’t running any programs in the schools, it has partnered with about 30 pre-college access programs that counsel students in Newark’s schools.

Anglin acknowledges that in an ideal world, the collaborative could be doing more “to inform instructional policies” in the schools, encouraging, for example, a greater focus on a college-prep curriculum. But he recognizes that the school system already has a lot on its plate. “The superintendent has been trying to turn around a huge ship,” he said prior to Anderson’s resignation.

Whether school leaders are able to turn around Newark’s public schools will go a long way in determining how successful the collaborative ultimately is in reaching its goals.

In my next column, I will profile a higher education leader in Newark who’s been central to the NCLC’s efforts.

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