Creating Space to do the Heavy Lifting: The Potential of Autonomy within the Newark Global Village School Zone

Every day in Newark Public Schools (NPS) hardworking, committed, and knowledgeable people are engaged in the arduous work of transforming schools.   They are principals, teachers, parents, students, and community partners.  Yet, in the flash of press cameras, front-page national headlines, charismatic leaders, and unprecedented private gifts, the work being done as seven public schools join together to dismantle the underperformance shared by their schools is easily forgotten.  Layer on a climate of reform that glamorizes the kind of top-down control that prohibits the collaborative efforts required to transform public schools (or any organization for that matter), this work may even seem obsolete.

However, on a flawless October afternoon a few principals from these seven hardworking schools sit together excitedly recounting how their teachers returned from a professional development day not only brimming over with instructional strategies they believed would improve their teaching, but also convinced they needed time during the school day to observe and learn from each other.  In their conversation, it is quite evident that what has started to take place in these schools is far from immaterial.  It is, in fact, the work that in the long-run matters the most to changing schools.

Supporting the implementation of the very collaborative and deep localized professional learning discussed by the principals are two Memorandums of Understanding (MOU). An MOU is a legal document that creates formal agreements between two or more parties.   The first MOU is an agreement between Newark Public Schools (NPS) and the seven schools in the heart of Newark’s Central Ward that formally joins these schools as the Newark Global Village School Zone (NGVSZ) and grants the NGVSZ schools autonomy from district policies and procedures in numerous areas.  The second MOU is between NPS and the Newark Teachers’ Union (NTU) and establishes modifications to the collective bargaining agreement including among other things compensation for extended-learning time, teacher transfers, and professional development.  These MOUs are the framework through which the NGVSZ will transform the conditions, expectations, and accountability for public education in the Central Ward.

As is the work of any legal agreement, the MOUs are technical articulations of the roles and responsibilities of the NGVSZ schools and their relationship to the school district and teachers.  However, the roles and responsibilities articulated in the NGVSZ MOUs are directly tied to best practices in core aspects of school organization, teaching and learning, community engagement, assessment, governance, and accountability—all of which are widely held levers for creating excellent schools.

While it’s true that much of what is laid out in the MOUs has been done—for example, school based decision making, local governance, and extended-day—what chomps at the bit of change are three things. First, is the acknowledgement that to build sustainable change these aspects of schooling must be transformed in concert; change must occur across every domain of the educational process simultaneously. Second, is the recognition that to have meaningful impacts on the opportunities and outcomes experienced by students, transformation must occur at every point on the developmental pipeline along which children travel; resources must be mobilized to address every aspect of children’s lives. Lastly, is the belief that sustainable change requires those most impacted by the problems that exist in schools and communities are an integral part of identifying problems and creating their solutions; organizing parents, teachers, students, and leaders to produce critical analyses of problems leads to transformational solutions.

At a time when the public debate about how to solve the problems of public education is locked into caricatures of superheroes and villains and dichotomies between the “status quo” and “real innovation,” the NGVSZ MOUs concretize a vision of what it takes to do the work everyone is talking about.  When Newark Public School Superintendent, Dr. Clifford Janey, charted the path of the NGVSZ schools in this direction, he drew on a long history of experiences that had shown him over time how public schools could use autonomy to achieve greatness while remaining part of a larger school system.  For example in Boston, where Dr. Janey was previously superintendent, a network of autonomous schools called the Boston Pilot Schools have lower retention rates than other Boston Public Schools, and higher test scores and higher college persistence rates for their graduates.  But, students in the Boston Pilot Schools are not just scoring higher.  They are scoring a lot higher.    In fourth grade—just to pick a grade—the proportion of students scoring advanced proficient on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) was 59% in ELA and 76% in math.  The framework through which the Boston Pilot Schools Network was able to utilize autonomy to achieve this success while remaining a part of Boston Public Schools was made possible through the collective efforts of the superintendent, the mayor, the teachers union, and the school committee in a school district under Mayoral control.

When the MOUs for NGVSZ were crafted, the principals of the seven schools went directly to the Boston Pilot Schools’ model for a blueprint of what needed to be in place to support this kind of student success within the zone, and within NPS.  What they encountered were policies, structures, and practices that had created the flexibility called for at the school-level to organize schools, staffing, and curricula in ways that best meet the needs of the students in each school.  This autonomy allowed the Boston Pilot Schools to differentiate their practices to support the specific strengths and needs of their school communities.  With a well-documented and scientifically evaluated model to guide the direction of their vision, the NGVSZ principals incorporated the following policies from the Boston Pilot School model into the NGVSZ MOUs:

  • Waiving of rules and policies that are not specifically applied to NGVSZ or that are necessary for compliance with state/federal laws or applicable collective bargaining agreements.
  • The flexibility to plan, design, and implement curricula and assessment developed by teams of classroom teachers, Department Chairs, coaches and other relevant professional and to work in collaboration with university partners with expertise in these areas.
  • The option to extend the school day for all instructional personnel or stagger the schedules of all instructional personnel according to the work hours required by the current collective bargaining agreement.
  • Authority as to allocation and expenditure of site-based per-pupil allocations, including Title I funding and grant funds, consistent with regulations of the state of New Jersey.
  • Collaboration between NGVSZ and NPS in the hiring of principals and development of a process for selecting and assessing teachers and paraprofessional.

Some will say what worked in Boston will not work in Newark.  Others will argue that when something has been proven to dramatically transform schools it should be tried in other places.  In my experience, both perspectives are correct.  Of course, very few things can be replicated in exactly the same way in new contexts where they are influenced by entirely different sets of relationships, histories, politics, cultures, and events.  However, that does not mean a good idea should not be considered because it took root some place else first.  It does mean, that a critical part of replication is understanding the particular local context and assessing how this context maps onto a “good idea” or a scientifically proven program or a best practice.

I might suggest that creating a zone among a feeder pattern of NPS schools is just one way in which the local context played out in determining how to move autonomy within a network of schools forward as a best practice in NPS.  Another example of how local context is extremely relevant to NGVSZ is in the extensive work that goes into building support across many layers of stakeholders in Newark.  While the Boston Pilot School network was developed out of partnership among Boston’s mayor, the superintendent, and teachers union, in Newark building the collaboration where stakeholders from every level hold NGVSZ and NPS accountable for meeting the terms of the MOU is an essential underpinning of the work.

At the heart of autonomy are vision and accountability.  When the teachers mentioned earlier in this post returned from their professional development session they were not only invigorated by a vision of what their practice could look like, they were inspired to open their classrooms, thereby establishing a level of public and collective accountability that by most accounts did not exist before.  Supporting this energy requires that principals and the schools they lead can deliver what these teachers need to reach the pedagogical expertise they envision and to ensure that accountability becomes an authentic tool for driving meaningful teaching and learning.  Research shows that this depth of responsiveness requires the kind of attention to school-level needs—the local—that the vision of autonomous schools set in motion by Dr. Janey and articulated in the NGVSZ MOUs call for.

The state of public education is at a new high in the public imagination.  While public schools may be the “sexy” reform agenda of the moment, our children and communities have been calling for the best education possible for much longer than the public memory will allow.  NGVSZ has created the scaffolding through which it can bring everyone’s focus in on the work of building great schools that are responsive to students and communities they serve. There are, of course, bumps in the road, fit and starts if you will.  However, the true vision of NGVSZ resides in what can happen when those who work directly in schools and classrooms have the opportunity to respond to the learning and other needs they see their students and colleagues struggle with everyday.  For those who doubt that the majority of teachers and principals we already have can do the heavy lifting or make the professional choices that this change demands all you have to do is look to Boston for strong evidence that autonomy yields achievement.

Lauren Wells, Ph.D.


The Broader Bolder Approach to Education

Metropolitan Center for Urban Education

Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Development

New York University





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