The first phase of the $100 million Facebook-funded makeover of Newark's school system will reach far beyond classrooms and into living rooms.
Over the next eight weeks, city residents will be targeted with phone calls, home visits and focus groups as part of an effort to get parents more involved in the educational process and to find out what is working — and what isn't — in the city's troubled school system.
"We don't want to give anyone any excuses for not participating in this process," Shavar Jeffries, president of the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board, said Monday at a news conference. "There are no excuses."
Mayor Cory Booker and city officials made the announcements Monday at the kickoff of the Partnership for Education in Newark, whose headquarters are housed in a converted furniture store in the city's heart.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in September pledged $100 million to improve Newark's schools, which have been plagued by low test scores, high dropout rates and crumbling buildings. The district already spends nearly $24,000 a year — more than twice the national average — on each of its 40,000 students.
Gov. Chris Christie has said he will give Booker a major role in overseeing significant changes in the district, which the state took over in 1995.
The outreach effort will cost about $1 million, Booker said. In addition to individual solicitations, the partnership will hold meetings at cafes and churches, place billboards around the city, and put ads on city buses.
Several speakers on Monday echoed the theme that the money alone won't erase many of the ingrained problems with the schools if administrators and those making the decisions can't agree on how to use it, or if they don't listen to the concerns of parents and students.
"The money is important, certainly, but mobilizing the community is the key," said Leonard Pugliese, regional vice president of the American Federation of School Administrators. "I've been in education for 40 years and I've never seen the potential for mobilization like this. I think people in the know are at least as excited by the spotlight this puts on Newark as they are by the money."
Diane Parker said she has often been frustrated when her daughter, a high school senior taking advanced placement classes, has been told her school can't offer some of the classes she needs. She blamed part of the problem on the state's role in the schools.
"As long as someone has someone over their head saying, 'This is what you have to teach,' then you have a problem," she said.