Newark Board of Education Superintendent Roger León

The Newark Board of Education began its transition to local control in 2018, beginning with the appointment of Superintendent of Schools Roger León. In the first year, after a forensic audit of the district, the superintendent and Board created and implemented a one-year strategic plan called NPS Clarity 2020, providing a bridge “from our past to our future.” That plan included a massive engagement effort, involving district employees, unions, local businesses, universities, foundations, elected officials, and civic organizations as well as parents and students. The discussion was to reestablish control and pride in the City’s public schools, and reaffirm the district’s commitment that Newark’s schools provide an excellent education for all of their students.

In 2020, in the depths of the pandemic, the Board and Superintendent León synthesized that work into a ten-year strategic plan, The Next Decade: 2020-30. “The length of the plan reflects the amount of work to be done,” Superintendent Leon says. He explains: “The Next Decade: 2020–30 is a comprehensive roadmap that guides the priorities and strategies that will best help us fulfill our mission and vision over the next ten years.”

The superintendent’s vision, as stated in the plan, is bold: “to build a new educational ecosystem that delivers a worldclass education to every child in the City of Newark.” The plan depicts it in a full-page diagram showing students’ progression from “conception to cradle” to “age 3 to grade 3” to “the bridge to high school success,” and then to college and career. It shows that graduates “return, reinvigorate, and reinvest” in the schools; and that the district itself, as a model of continuous learning, will “research, reflect, and respond” as it evolves.

On the left side of the logic model are the twelve keys to unlocking this new educational ecosystem, and those keys are: parents, families, students, community, early childhoodcenters, elementary schools, magnet and comprehensive high schools, business partners, social services, elected officials, higher education, community and faith-based organizations, co-curricular and extended learning experiences, gifted and talented programs, adult and alternative education,and career, and technical education. On the right side of the diagram, but an integral part of the ecosystem, are the “game changers.” In the earliest years, the game changers are prenatal care, health care, daycare, and access to early childhood education; at age 3 to grade three, they are access to high school and wraparound services; at grade 6 to 9, access to higher education; in high school, access to college, college credits, dual enrollment, apprenticeships, internships, mentorships, and industry certifications; and thereafter, alumni associations, coaching, networking, and jobs. The keys and game changers are all interconnected, and all play a role in the plan to cultivate the relationships, resources, and opportunities every child needs to achieve their full potential in the 21st century.

The district’s high schools are the anchor, its center and greatest attraction in the transformation of the school system. Superintendent León’s high school redesign strategy includes reciprocal relationships between its comprehensive and magnet high schools, so each comprehensive offers the instructional program of a magnet partner in its own specialized academy. Premier academies have been established at the comprehensive high schools with higher education institutions and professional organizations in the areas of business and finance, allied health, teacher education, law Senior Day with the Class of 2022 and public safety, environmental studies, and engineering.

In addition, four new high schools have opened in the last three years: Newark School of Global Studies, with its diplomacy academy focused on Arabic and Chinese; Newark School of Fashion and Design, powered by Parsons School of Design; Newark School of Data Science & Information Technology fueled by Novartis; and Newark Vocational High School, with its culinary, travel and tourism, and graphic arts academies. This latter high school had been previously closed under state operation and is now flourishing under local control.

In addition to opening four new high schools, four new elementary schools opened (Michelle Obama, Sir Isaac Newton, East Ward, and Ironbound Academy). Part of the plan, still under consideration, is the establishment of feeder patterns connecting elementary schools with partner high schools, with coordinated academic programs and continuous enrollment from pre-kindergarten through grade 12. This has already begun in some schools: students at Sir Isaac Newton Elementary School are guaranteed enrollment at Science Park High School, and students at the Michelle Obama Elementary School are guaranteed enrollment at University High School. The objective is to create at least one elementary school in every ward that is an automatic feeder pattern to a magnet high school with the option of attending a different school based on choice. This is why the expansion of all of the elementary schools through grade 8 was critical and now the following schools have joined the rest of the elementary schools in Newark with students enrolled through grade 8: Harriet Tubman, Roberto Clemente, Franklin, Salome Ureña, and East Ward. While this expansion has been critical in the middle grades, we know that under state operation prekindergarten seats were eliminated throughout the south ward and other schools throughout the city, denying seats in preferred district schools at an early age. However, the local control board has increased such seats in the South Ward and throughout the city, and enrollment is on the rise.

Perhaps the most distinctive part of the ecosystem is the Conception to Cradle to Grade 3 Consortium, a partnership of county, state, and city leaders in healthcare, social services, and education serving Newark’s youngest learners. The Consortium collaborates, plans, and pools resources to support the implementation of the game changers—prenatal care, health care, daycare, and early childhood education— with the goal that all children will be reading by grade 3. Its first initiative was to assign educators—Newark Public Schools employees—to the prenatal and obstetric units of the City’s hospitals to provide the earliest possible educational support to children, and their families. This is already underway.

“It is intentionally a long road,” says Board President Dawn Haynes, “but we are well on our way.” She added, “Schools are opening or re-opening or expanding. Enrollment is the highest in decades. Graduation rates are at an all-time high. Students are receiving college scholarships at unprecedented levels. And, we are only at the start of Year Three of the strategic plan.”

The global pandemic took its toll on students and families, and quite frankly all of us, and the impact on student achievement is unlike any catastrophic event in our history. Research shows that in districts of color and lower-income communities, it will take over five years to make up for pandemic- related missed learning and learning loss. While this heightens the challenge, Newark’s plan remains steadfast and focused on the priorities and strategies outlined in the strategic plan. Interestingly, one strategy in The Next Decade is to develop a hybrid learning plan, and by Year 3 to share and document best practices of remote learning and develop a sustainable model for responsive training and technical assistance that supports staff, students, and parents. The pandemic forced the district to implement that strategy.

We encourage you to visit the district’s website and watch a three-minute video that invites prospective students and staff to the Newark Public Schools. Over a collage of school work and activities, the student narrator says with enthusiasm, “Calling our future! Calling all artists, believers, deep thinkers, pioneers, poets, those who shift the culture deeper into the real, the authentic, the true… those who believe in excellence and know there is still a long way to go… This is the place to be. Welcome to the Newark Public Schools! Let’s go to work!”

Where Passion Meets Progress.

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