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1-7-15 Education in the News

Newark Schools Chief Has Less-Then-Friendly Visit with State Lawmakers…Legislators grill Cami Anderson in her first appearance since her appointment three years ago

John Mooney | January 7, 2015

 

It became clear early on that Newark schools Superintendent Cami Anderson would face a grilling in her first visit to the state Legislature after three years on the job.

State Sen. Ron Rice Sr. (D-Essex) even hedged on thanking her for appearing yesterday before the Joint Committee on Public Schools, which he co-chairs, saying Anderson’s attendance came only after repeated requests.

But four hours later, it was hard to gauge who, if anyone, won a standoff that saw legislators asking often-heated questions of the controversial Anderson, who was the appointed by Gov. Chris Christie three years ago.

Anderson, who has become a lightning rod for protests in the state’s largest school district, hardly addressed many of those questions, and a few times dodged them outright.

But she at least survived the grilling, smiling at reporters – as well as a handful of protesters – afterward as she quickly exited.

Aiming to fend off criticism of her management style, Anderson -- who was accompanied by a mostly silent state Education Commissioner David Hespe, her immediate boss -- was at times apologetic, if not deferential, to the legislators.

For instance, she went out of her way to praise former Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, among the most ardent critics on the committee, as a “trailblazer” in New Jersey politics as the first African-American female to hold that position.

Whether it was enough is another question.

“We have finally gotten on the record most, if not all the questions we have,” said state Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), the other co-chair, after the hearing closed.

“She gave some answers,” Jasey said, “but the underlying issue here is a lack of trust. And I’m not sure that can be repaired, honestly.”

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chair of the state Senate’s education committee, was equally harsh.

“There are mixed messages here: what the district perceives to be happening, and what our constituents know to be happening,” she said afterward.

The hearing was much-anticipated, as much as for the political theatre as anything else. Many of the state’s key education lobbyists were sprinkled about the hearing room, following the proceedings with great curiosity about what might happen.

But little new information, no real developments resulted from the back-and-forth between the superintendent and her antagonists.

Much of the questioning had to do with Anderson’s “One Newark” reorganization plan for the Newark district, which critics call a fiasco and Anderson maintains offers an opportunity for real choice for families. The plan has included the closing or consolidation of schools, and a new universal enrollment system that includes both traditional and charter schools.

There was an air of double-speak to some of Anderson’s answers, including her description of a handful of school closures as “adjustments that were needed to address large fiscal challenges.”

After Anderson denied there was a “rubber room” for educators not placed in the schools, state Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Essex) called out a former principal in the audience who said he had been assigned to one.

Anderson was stronger in her defense of other instructional changes, saying they have “breathed new life into some of our lowest performing schools.”

Maybe the most contentious moments came with Oliver leading the charge, along with state Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, against Anderson’s style of leadership, including her refusal to attend public meetings of the district’s advisory board.

Oliver, who said Anderson needs to get a tougher skin, recalled a community meeting she attended where the superintendent’s staff didn’t allow questions, Oliver told Anderson that she needed to stop treating people in the community like children.

“You make the assumption that you are the sharpest tool in the shed,” Oliver told Anderson.

For Rice, the hearing was also a chance to continue his long-running complaints about the district’s sale of the 18th Avenue School to the TEAM charter school network, which he claims was a backroom deal to benefit TEAM and its well-connected benefactors.

“There are those who believe that maybe your heart is in the right place, but your agenda is not,” Rice said.

In the end, there was also a sense of exhaustion on both sides. When Rice sought to pursue more lines of questioning, Hespe broke his silence and said that four-plus hours of testimony showed a good-faith effort by Anderson and the administration.

“We are not shirking our responsibility to answer your questions,” Hespe said.

But Jasey said this was hardly the end. A future hearing is planned for those in the community to share their perspectives, Jasey said, adding that Anderson may be invited back.

 

Profile: State Board of Education President Brings Unique Pedigree to Post…Mark Biedron cofounded a progressive private school that’s a far cry from the testing-centric culture of public schools

John Mooney | January 7, 2015

 

Name: Mark Biedron

Title: President of the State Board of Education, 2014 to present. Appointed to the board in 2011 by Gov. Chris Christie.

Why he matters: Biedron has taken an activist role in leading the 13-member board that is responsible for reviewing and approving state administrative code and school regulations. He has traveled the state to query stakeholders and pressed the administration to explain its policies, from testing to school monitoring.

Where he comes from: The board president is a cofounder of the Willow School in Gladstone, a small independent school that focuses on ethics and language as the cornerstones of its curriculum. Founded with his former wife in 2002, the school’s progressive model is quite a bit different from the testing-focused culture of the public education system that Biedron is now charged with overseeing.

Not incongruous: Biedron maintains that for all the evident differences, he feels that public schools are moving toward a more holistic approach to education via the new Common Core State Standards and the advent of PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) testing.

Quote: “In the old way and my way of learning, it was to put answers on paper. But your look at PARCC and Common Core, while not perfect, it is about how you got to the answers.”

Not happening fast enough: “I am the first person to say that testing doesn’t show everything about a student, but we have to take a lot of steps moving from Point A to Point B … This big behemoth called education moves slowly.”

How he started a school: Biedron said he was looking for a school for his children that would address both personal virtues and academic rigor, and finding none, he and his former wife were left with the decision to either move or start their own school. They decided on the latter.

Quick growth: The Willow School began in 2002 with 13 students in a church basement and has grown to 130 students, kindergarten through eighth grade. Three of Biedron’s children attended the school, the last now an eighth grader.

A green focus: As part of the Willow School’s mission, Biedron has helped lead the construction of two environmentally friendly buildings, including the first in the nation that is fully certified by the U.S. Green Building Council. A second building won the council’s “platinum” status, and the school is near completion on a third building that will take its “green” efforts a step further in seeking to occupy a minimal energy footprint. “There will be no electric bill, no water bill,” he said.

A public-private school product: Biedron attended the Watchung public schools up until sixth grade and then moved to the private Pingry School. Both his sons now attend Pingry.

Open minded: Biedron is quick to say, “I don’t have all the answers.” Since named to the board, he has met with a variety of people with different perspectives, including Newark Mayor Ras Baraka just this week. “I’m ready to talk with anyone,” he said.

Extreme skiing: When not navigating school politics, the 62-year-old Biedron is not just an avid skier but has tracked more than 5 million vertical feet by helicopter and other unconventional ways of getting up a mountain. Much of it has been in the mecca of helicopter skiing in British Columbia, and he describes the joys that come with skiing “untracked powder” for hours on end.

Hometown: Pottersville, Hunterdon County.

 


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