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What are Newark, N.J., schools doing with $100 million gift from Facebook founder?

In a neighborhood about two miles from this city’s downtown business district, a former public middle school offers the most visible evidence of Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook money at work. NBC News Rich Gardella, Lisa Myers and Azriel Relph report.
/ Source: NBC News

In a neighborhood about two miles from this city’s downtown business district, a former public middle school offers the most visible evidence of Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook money at work.  The big building — once Camden Middle School and occupying a large chunk of a city block — is now the home of several new niche public high schools created by the Newark public school system.

The schools opened for the first time in September, funded in part by the $100 million gift to Newark’s public schools announced a year ago by Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO.

The Bard High School Early College, which uses parts of the first and second floors of the building, offers advanced college courses and instruction for the best, brightest and most ambitious students. Upon graduation, the students also will have earned 60 college credits, the equivalent of a two-year college associate degree.

The Newark Bridges High School, which occupies parts of the first and third floors, offers a “second chance” for students who have fallen behind and need more attention, management and support to catch up — including dropouts.

NBC News visited these new schools this month, and found them far different than what many Americans might expect typical inner-city schools to look like.

At 7:45 a.m., one of the heavy metal entrance doors on the Bard corner of the building swung open, and students began to trickle in. Their principal, Raymond Peterson, stood at the door greeting each student individually, as he does every morning.  Peterson, a tall bearded man with a professorial air and a bowtie, had run Bard’s first high school in New York City and returned from retirement to run Newark's. (The Bard High School Early College is an alternative high school program that began in 2001 as collaboration between Bard College and the New York City Board of Education.)

"We're very optimistic about its success," Peterson said.  "We think Newark is a great place to test the model of early college in an urban setting."

On the third floor, Newark Bridges’ Principal Shenette Gray was working on getting new “smart boards” — or electronic chalkboards — installed in the classrooms. Gray, a former teacher for the organization Teach for America, with seven years of teaching and administrative experience in several cities, learned about the position from a Teach for America alumni publication.

“Our school reaches a population that’s sometimes forgotten,” Gray said.  “But they are still capable of and deserving of an excellent education.”

In the parts of the building used by both schools, we found no peeling paint, no grime, no disorderly students, no overwhelmed teachers.  Classrooms and hallways were freshly painted, neat and clean, and well-equipped.  Classes appeared orderly and well-run. Class sizes were small — 20 students or less.  Enthusiastic teachers took time to work with students individually.  Students in the classes we observed — for English literature, history and algebra — all seemed attentive and engaged.  Books, notebooks, pens, pencils all appeared abundant and new.

Students told us they felt grateful that public schools like these existed in their city, and fortunate to be attending them.

“At my old school, I wasn't really pushed as much as this school has pushed me,” 18-year-old Jamal Smith, a student at Bard Early College High School, told us.

“They want me to do better for myself,” said his classmate, 15-year-old Queen-Ama Phillips. “They have — I have — high expectations, and I really think it's going to help me in life.”

'On a wrong track, following a wrong train'
On the day we visited, Anniyah Harrell, a 16-year-old high school dropout and a mother, had come to Newark Bridges to apply for admission. She was accompanied by both her mother Yolanda, and her 2-year-old son. Anniyah said she had dropped out of school because she just didn't feel like going, and wasn’t listening to her mother.

“I was on a wrong track, following a wrong train,” Anniyah told us.  “I decided to come back because I noticed that, without education, there's nothing.”

“I thank Mark (Zuckerberg) so much,” her mother Yolanda said.  “Thank you — for giving Newark a second chance.”

These positive opinions are music to the ears of Cory Booker, Newark’s Democratic mayor.  Booker became a face of school reform in Newark after securing the $100 million gift from Zuckerberg. He appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” where Zuckerberg announced the gift, and at NBC News’ Education Nation summit last year.  Although Newark public schools have been under New Jersey state control since 1995, Booker is on the Board of Trustees for the foundation that is distributing the money, and he has a vote on where and how it’s spent.

Booker told NBC News that what we saw at the Bard and Newark Bridges schools are examples of dramatic changes occurring in the Newark public school system because of Zuckerberg’s gift.

“They're both great innovations,” Booker said.  “I'm a big believer that a lot of our kids are held by back by a system that does things in the normal way. Why not give kids the chance to excel, a chance to achieve?”

The school reform effort has its work cut out for it.

Newark, whose skyline sits in the shadow of New York City’s, just west, across the Hudson River, has struggled with the problems afflicting many post-industrial American cities: crime, adult illiteracy and poor academic performance by public school students.

Statistics for the Newark Public School District — the largest school system in New Jersey, with 73 public schools and a student population of approximately 40,000 — show grim realities.

As of 2008-2009:

·         60 percent of students could not perform at grade level in reading and math by the end of third grade;

·         54 percent of high school students graduated;

·         38 percent of Newark high school students enrolled in college;

·         Most high school graduates attending college needed remedial instruction.

Newark lists a majority of its public schools — 55 of 73 — as “in need of improvement” due to consistent underperformance.

These results occur in a public school system with a $973 million annual budget and which spends approximately $22,000 per student each year — almost twice the national average.

Booker said these facts demand huge changes in how Newark’s public school system operates.

He said the philosophy guiding the spending of Zuckerberg’s gift — which amounts to only 10 percent of a single year’s budget — is based on a simple conclusion: The public school system in Newark and across the country has failed too many children, and needs to change how it educates students.

Funding the status quo — traditional public school models that have been failing for decades — isn’t the right approach, he said.

“A lot of our kids are held by back by a system that does things in the normal way,” Booker said. 

What’s needed, he said, is a “cultural shift” away from entrenched practices that don’t result in improved academic performance across-the-board, and toward innovative and “overlooked” approaches that do.

“One of the major tests for our success,” Booker said, “is how well we can expand upon what's good and great here, and find ways to change away from those things that are not serving our kids.”

So far, Booker said, that’s meant hiring strong and innovative principals and teachers, and empowering them all to create “individual learning communities that control their own destiny, free of bureaucracy”  — principals such as Peterson and Gray, at niche schools like Bard and Newark Bridges, tailoring their schools to specific populations of students with specific needs.

“There's not a one-size-fits-all educational experience anymore,” Booker continued. “We want to make sure that all of our children, no matter what — whether they come from disadvantaged backgrounds, whether they come from environments where they want to focus on science, math, vocational training — that we create multiple school models … that are high-quality, that support all of our children.  And don't squeeze any of them out or let any of them fall between the cracks.

“The focus here is to show that we in America can create a public school system that serves every one of our children.  We know that, especially at the high school level, the more individualized, specialized, the more likely it is to be successful for our young people.”

'We're on the pathway'
Overseeing Newark’s school reforms is the new superintendent of Newark Public Schools, Cami Anderson.

“I feel like we're on pathway to doing great things,” Anderson said.

A former teacher and superintendent of alternative public high schools for New York City, and a former executive director of Teach for America, Anderson started her job four months ago.

Like Booker, Anderson exudes confidence that, with the help of Zuckerberg’s gift, Newark’s public schools eventually will achieve a goal that many would consider exceedingly ambitious.

“The goal is to have every Newark student graduate with the skills necessary to succeed at a college level,” Anderson told NBC News.

Part of Zuckerberg’s plan, Booker said, was to “do some things to stimulate other donors to come in, other innovators to come in, other social entrepreneurs to come in."  That has happened.

Since Zuckerberg gave the $100 million gift to Newark, other big donors have chipped in another $48 million in matching funds. The goal is $100 million in matching funds, for a total of $200 million, he said.

How much of the money has been spent in the year since Zuckerberg announced his gift?

Last week, the Foundation for Newark’s Future — the nonprofit created to distribute all the donated money as grants — publicly released an itemized list of all expenditures.

So far, $8.4 million of the $148 million in money donated has been allocated. The largest items:

·         $1 million for a Newark community opinion survey (Partnership for Education in Newark = PENewark – spent before the creation of the foundation);

·         $1 million for an extended learning time program, administered by Newark Public Schools partners; 

·         $600,000 for a teacher innovation fund;

·         $550,000 for a financial audit of the entire Newark public school system;

·         $550,000 for the Bard high school;

·         $500,000 for the Newark Bridges high school;

·         $500,000 for Teach for America for recruitment and placement of new teachers.

What’s striking about the list is not only what’s on it but what’s not.  New niche programs outside the existing school system are on it, but system-wide upgrades of books and equipment are not.  So far the items with the broadest reach across the entire school system are the financial audit and the survey of community opinion.

Has the money made a difference?

“It's made a tremendous difference already,” Booker told us.

Anderson said Zuckerberg’s gift and the matching money has allowed the district to try more things, faster – because private money comes with fewer restrictions and requirements about how it is spent.

“It's helped accelerate innovation,” she said. “The sort of flexibility and agility of philanthropic dollars are really critical to thinking outside the box.”

Despite Booker and Anderson’s upbeat assessments, and despite concrete examples of improvement and progress, there are plenty of skeptical and even angry Newark parents and education advocates.

Some parents of children attending Newark public schools told NBC News that they are outraged that they still see no evidence of the money helping their own children’s traditional public schools.

As we interviewed parents at random outside a traditional Newark public school, we met Quenntina Foster, a married mother of three — two of whom attend Newark public schools.

Foster claimed that the public school her 8-year-old son Andre attends as a third-grader doesn’t have enough resources to teach her child properly. 

“There's no books, there's no computers,” she said.  “There's nothing there.”

She showed us a reading textbook her son was using this year.  It was well-worn. Some of the pages were torn, and others appeared warped, as if from water damage. Foster told us that her son typically brought home paper copies of excerpts of textbooks instead of the actual books, and that this was the only book she’d seen from his school in two years.

Asked what her son needed, Foster replied, “An education. That's what's lacking.  He's not being taught.  Why he's not being taught?  Because he doesn't have the resources to be taught. That's it.  You can't teach him if you don't have the proper tools. He's not starting off on a solid foundation. The bricks are falling right from up under his feet and he's only 8 years old.  So when he gets to high school … he's going to be lost because he didn't get that solid foundation that starts when they're young.”

We also asked her whether she’s seen any difference at her children’s schools since Zuckerberg’s gift.

She answered emphatically.  “No. Not one difference.  And it’s killing me inside,” she said, her eyes filling with tears.  “As a parent, I’m outraged.  I’m furious.”

(We contacted her son’s school, the Bragaw Avenue School, but its principal would not comment, per Newark Public Schools policy.)

We asked Mayor Booker about Foster’s experience and concerns.

“That mother is absolutely right,” he said. “This is the reason why we rolled up our sleeves about a year ago and said, ‘This is ridiculous’ that many of our parents are struggling under those conditions. This is the reason why we put so much energy — so much political energy, so much resources — into changing this system.  Because she's right.  In my opinion, it is inherently unfair, undemocratic, un-American. And that has to change.”

When told that Newark had begun spending the money, allotting it to various reform efforts and programs, Foster had a question.

“Allotted to who?” she asked. “Not to the public schools.  Because if so, show me where a receipt says you went and allotted something to the school my son attends.  I would love to see it.  Because it's not there — no shape, form or fashion,” she said.  “When the kids went to school on the first day this year, it should have been like Christmas.  New textbooks, new computers, something…  I just believe the money is going somewhere else, not into the school system.  It's not going there.” 

Foster said other parents at her children’s schools and other schools feel the same way.

“Nobody's seeing no change.  Then you go to these meetings,” she said. “  And you get the same empty promises.”

NBC News talked to other parents with children at other Newark public schools who expressed similar opinions. 

But Booker insisted the promises weren’t empty, and asked for patience.

He said one reason that they haven’t spent more yet is because they needed time to get pieces of the reform program, including key personnel, in place first. 

“People need to understand that we are moving as rapidly as we can,”  Booker said.  “We haven't transformed our system yet.  It's not going to be transformed overnight. It's just not… but we are making steady progress, measurable progress.  And over the coming years, we're going to see a lot more.”

“Time will show,” he added, “that we're going to be making progress as a system as a whole.  That every child will find benefit.”

Some see lack of transparency
Some Newark residents we spoke with also complained about a lack of transparency about the gift and the spending.

Until the Foundation for Newark’s Future released the itemized list of the grants it had made last week, details about the spending of the gift money have not been easy to obtain, leading to some public outcry from Newark parents and local education advocates.

In April, one organization of volunteer Newark parents and grandparents, the Secondary Parent Council, filed a request under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act requesting copies of correspondence between Booker and his staff and Zuckerberg and other matching donors regarding their gifts. In July, the City of Newark’s law department rejected the request, describing it as “overbroad,” citing executive privilege and arguing that some of the mayor’s communications about the gift were exempt from public disclosure because he engaged in them as a private citizen, outside his duties as mayor. In late August, attorneys for the council and for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey Foundationsued the City of Newark in New Jersey’s Superior Court, complaining its failure to provide the information was a violation of law. Booker has since announced that he will release his correspondence, though the ACLU-NJ has yet to receive any documents. 

But officials involved in Newark’s school reform offer assurances to those with such concerns.

“Much of the concern about transparency is misplaced,” said Greg Taylor, president and CEO of the Foundation for Newark’s Future.  Taylor said that one reason the spending hadn’t been made public until recently was that the foundation had been “working through strategies” and that one of the most important parts of his job was to be clear about how they will spend the money.

“I would argue,” he said, “that we’re being strategic and thoughtful about how we’re spending the money.”

But some critics question the composition of the Foundation for Newark’s Future’s board of trustees.  Four voting board members — Booker; Paul Bernstein, chairman of the Pershing Square Foundation; Enrico Gaglioti, a private philanthropist and partner in  Goldman Sachs; and Jen Holleran of Facebook’s Startup: Education Foundation — determine what the foundation spends the gift money on. 

Apart from Booker, the members all are major private donors who have provided gift funds or their representatives. (The Pershing Square Foundation was crreated by donor William Ackerman, manager of Pershing Square Capital Management, a hedge fund in New York.)

This group does not include Anderson, the Newark Public Schools superintendent, or any other representative of the Newark Public Schools system.

One Newark Public Schools official who spoke on the condition of anonymity acknowledged the composition of the grant-making board was a problem.  “It’s absolutely an issue.”

In response, Taylor said in a statement that the individuals on the board have “made an investment in and are firmly committed to improving public education in Newark.” He noted that the foundation is in the process of forming a community advisory council, which will include “knowledgeable experts and community leaders” and “provide Newarkers a strong voice in advising foundation leadership” to ensure “we direct grants to the most impactful programs.”

Why was Newark the recipient of this gift in the first place?

Facebook did not reply to a request to interview Mark Zuckerberg for this report.

But Booker told us that Zuckerberg’s gift was the product of a conversation the two had, which turned into a meeting of the minds about how to make the biggest impact on school reform with philanthropic dollars.

“If we wanted to see large scale education reform,” Booker told us, “it would be good to find one place to really make it a laboratory or demonstration project for all the great ideas from around the country.  In his philanthropy, he came to that same conclusion, as well.  That instead of spreading his philanthropy around to many places, let me go all in, in one spot, and see if we can make a difference.”

The 'startup' model
Zuckerberg has revealed some of his motivations, and an entrepreneurial spirit behind his gift. When he announced the $100 million gift of his own personal Facebook stock, he described it as the first “challenge grant” of a new foundation called Startup: Education, which he was creating “to invest in educating and improving the lives of young people.”  

”School districts need more autonomy and clearer leadership so they can be managed more like startups than like government bureaucracies,” Zuckerberg wrote in a post on his Facebook page the day he announced the gift. “Like any startup, the key to making this work is finding great leaders and the right market that's ready for change.”

Zuckerberg wrote that he had decided to put his “full support” behind Newark public school reforms because he was impressed with Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic Mayor Booker, and their bipartisan efforts at reforms of Newark public schools.

Although Booker may be the face of Newark school reform, the ultimate authority over Newark’s public schools is not the City of Newark but the State of New Jersey, which has had control since 1995. 

Booker’s stated visions for Newark public school reform — empowering good principal-managers, trying various tailored, innovative solutions that produce real results and improvements in student academic performance — are consistent with Christie’s own education reform policies.

Some critics in Newark worry that the “business startup approach” embraced by Booker and Christie and others in the education reform movement will favor charter schools over traditional public schools. 

According to the National Education Association, charter schools are public elementary or secondary schools “that have been freed from some of the rules, regulations and statutes that apply to other public schools, in exchange for some type of accountability for producing certain results, which are set forth in each charter school's charter.”  As public schools, they are funded with public money, but they may also accept private money.

Some charter schools in Newark have been “co-located” inside existing public schools, where disparities in resources and funding between the two have become a sore point for some.   

Some parents and observers fear that an effort to create and promote charter schools as a reform solution will come at the expense of the majority of students remaining in traditional public schools.  Some charter schools have come under criticism for posting superior academic results by screening applicants and only taking the best students.  Several critics told us they think the result in Newark could be a “two-tiered” system of public schools — haves and have-nots — in which best-performing public school students benefit but the majority do not.

Booker dismissed these concerns.

“Those fears are not merited or warranted at all,” Booker said.  “The majority of the money is to be focused on the traditional public school system, period.”

According to the Foundation for Newark’s Future, it has so far so far it has committed $700,000 of the $7.4 million to charter schools — grants of $350,000 each to the People’s Preparatory Charter School and the Roseville Community Charter School.

We asked Booker and Superintendent Anderson whether there were any strings — any pressures to fund specific initiatives or approaches — that came with Zuckerberg’s gift or the other matching private money.

Only one 'string' attached: Improve achievement
“The pressure,” Anderson said, “is to ensure that we have a system that dramatically raises student achievement.”

Booker said that Newark has accepted private money for its schools for the last 50 years, but always at the direction of Newark public schools superintendent and other Newark government leaders.

“I'm very confident that these investments being made, if they're not resonant with what we're doing, we don't want that money,” Booker said.  “At the end of the day, the leaders of education in Newark are our superintendent, our (state) commissioner of education, our principals in our high schools, and those will be the decision-makers themselves.”

Asked how success should be measured, both Booker and Anderson gave the same answer: student academic achievement.

“The measure has to be the academic accomplishment of our kids,” Booker said.  “Are they job- and career- and college-ready?

“The extent to which,” Anderson said, “we have more students who are proficient at reading, writing, thinking and math, at or above grade level, on path to college-readiness.”

“We should judge the resources that are in Newark Public Schools — and all of the philanthropic dollars — in their ability to move the needle on student outcomes, period,” she said. “Ultimately I think there are lots of ways to get there, and I would imagine we're going to try a whole bunch of things and at the end of the day, bottom line, we should get better results for our kids.”