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After More Than 20 Years, Newark, N.J., Regains Control Of Public Schools


In the early 1990s, public schools in Newark, N.J., were in very bad shape. An 1,800-page report of the time charged that students were being victimized by degrading school environments that virtually ensured academic failure. The situation was so dire that the state came in and took control of Newark's school system.

More than 20 years later, the city is now regaining control. Newark's mayor, Ras Baraka, came up as a student and then a teacher and principal in Newark Public Schools. And as mayor, he has advocated for the return to local control. Earlier today I asked him how things will change once the state steps back.

RAS BARAKA: It'll be like most American cities. The actual parents and residents of these cities will be able to vote and select the people who govern their own children's lives, will be able to have a louder voice and a curriculum from school lunch to busing to all of the things that affect their children. They actually have a say-so, and that's not a small thing.

SHAPIRO: It does seem that the system has turned around, going from a 54 percent graduation rate in 1995 to an anticipated 77 percent graduation rate today. I wonder if that happened while the school system was under state control, could you argue that you shouldn't mess with a good thing? The state is doing better at this than the city did in the past.

BARAKA: Well, ultimately I think that that is because of collective effort of the folks here in this town. There are some specific things that began to take place in the last two years or so. Some of it has to do with, you know, the school district's work with teachers, with principals, trying to make sure that schools were successful.

SHAPIRO: One of the big shifts in Newark has been a move towards charter schools. About 40 percent of the students in the public school system now attend charter schools. How much do you think that has to do with improved results?

BARAKA: Well, it has something to do with it obviously. But you know, all of the charter schools that have come up in Newark have not been successful. As a matter of fact, the magnet schools are outpacing all schools in the city, and about 30 percent of our students attend those magnet schools as well.

SHAPIRO: I wonder how much of this is applicable to other cities around the country. Newark school system received a hundred-million-dollar gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. It was matched by another hundred million in donations. Does it take hundreds of millions of dollars of outside money to make a failing school system turn around?

BARAKA: Well, (laughter) hundreds of millions of dollars didn't go to the school system, so - it went to a nonprofit organization to dole out the money they thought that was fair. It didn't go to teacher training, didn't go to developing new ideas in the schools. There is no real kind of causal relationship between that money and the development of the traditional public schools in Newark.

SHAPIRO: What was the cause that resulted in the outcome of the higher graduation rates and so on?

BARAKA: Well, I tried to explain earlier that there was a collaborative effort. For example, Rutgers University in the last three years has increased their Newark student population by 60 percent. The creation of these kind of pipelines and identifying young people and putting them in these kinds of programs help kids move faster into universities and give them the opportunity to think there's something at the end of the rainbow for them if they work harder in school. These kind of efforts are important - that we bring the universities and the nonprofit in the private sector into our schools like most communities had.

SHAPIRO: Back in 1995, Newark was accused of not just failing students but victimizing them. What is the promise that you are making to students and their families now to do right by them this time?

BARAKA: Ultimately what we're telling parents here is that there were some people who'd done some awful things, and they should have been changed and corrected. But that should not have translated into you losing your democratic rights. And so ultimately we're giving the parents the opportunity to have their democratic rights back.

SHAPIRO: Ras Baraka, mayor of Newark, N.J., thanks a lot for joining us.

BARAKA: No problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF GENERATIONALS SONG, "SAY WHEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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