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Despite Facebook philanthropy, Newark schools struggle

NEWARK, N.J.- When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg appeared on Oprah Winfrey's show five years ago this week to announce a $100 million donation to remake education in Newark, it was presented as an effort to make a struggling city a national model for turning around urban schools.

Advocates see success in the most visible result so far - many more students in charter schools. But the exodus of students and the public funding that comes with them from the Newark Public Schools has deepened a financial crisis in a district that still educates most of the children in New Jersey's largest city.

A big part of Zuckerberg's mission was also to improve the traditional public schools. While there have been major changes there, too, indicators such as student test scores have been mixed.

Add to that frustration that the reformers weren't using input from the people of the city, and it's safe to say that the awe of Zuckerberg's high-minded intentions for using his first major foray into philanthropy to try to effect sweeping change has receded.

So has Zuckerberg's donation, which was matched with another $100 million from other donors, shown that big-scale philanthropy guarantees quick change?

Mark Zuckerberg, right, founder and CEO of Facebook talks about his donation of $100 million to help Newark public schools during a news conference in Newark. Rich Schultz, AP

The answers vary.

"The gift has been enormously productive and beneficial," said Christopher Cerf, the district superintendent. "It's also been pretty deeply misunderstood."

On the other hand:

"We've proven at this point that answer is no," said Derrell Bradford, a supporter of Zuckerberg's effort and leader of the New York school reform group NYCAN, who previously worked for similar groups in New Jersey. Bradford pointed out that $200 million is a tiny portion - about 4 percent - of what it has cost to run the school district for the past five years.

Even Zuckerberg didn't expect quick results. In an interview last year with The Associated Press, he said it would take years to measure.

The donation to Newark schools, which were taken over by the state in 1995, came about as a meeting of the minds of Zuckerberg with Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, and Cory Booker, a Democrat who was then Newark mayor and is now a U.S. senator. The politicians agreed on a strategy focused on closing the worst schools, offering incentives to higher-performing teachers and launching new kinds of schools - and they sold it to Zuckerberg.

Charter schools - run by private entities, with more freedom than traditional public schools to set hours and curriculum and to choose their students, and where test scores and graduation rates are often better - have received about $58 million, according to "The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools?", a book by journalist Dale Russakoff released this month. The number of students in charters has more than doubled since 2010 and now represents just over one-fourth of Newark's 48,000 school students.

Ryan Hill, the chief operating officer of the New Jersey schools run by national charter operator KIPP, said the contributions allowed the group to expand from two Newark schools to eight. Children in Newark - and especially African-American pupils - are now far more likely to be in a good school, Hill said.

"Starting new high-performing schools is a lot easier than turning around an enormous system," he said.

David Sciarra, director of the Education Law Center, a Newark-based group that has sued the state seeking better educations for low-income children, believes Newark is in worse shape now.

From 2010 to 2014, the percentage of district students meeting standards on statewide tests fell in many cases. For instance, a lower portion of both fourth and eighth graders score as at least proficient in language arts. The passage rate also declined for fourth graders in math, while a slightly higher percentage of eighth-graders passed.

Sciarra believes the growth of charter schools has hurt traditional schools by siphoning off money, as well as students from the families most motivated to succeed.

"Conditions on the ground have not improved. They've gotten worse," Sciarra said.

Still, the graduation rate made a big jump from 2011 to 2012 and has been relatively steady since then. Cerf, the superintendent, said the improving graduation rate is significant and so is another development - that teachers rated as "ineffective" started leaving their jobs more often than those deemed "effective" or "highly effective."

As traditional public schools shrank in Newark, Cami Anderson, the state-appointed superintendent, wanted to avoid laying off teachers because the union contract would require ousting the newest teachers first, even if they were doing a good job. Instead, she moved teachers rated as less effective to support jobs, where they remained on the payroll.

Partly because of that, budget problems remained even as donations rolled in, including more than $48 million to fund a new teacher contract that included back pay and something new for teachers in New Jersey - merit pay.

Anderson left the job in July. Cerf's duties include ushering the district out from under state control.

Sharon Smith, a schools activist with two daughters in Newark traditional public schools and one in a charter, said she was excited after the donation was announced and attended meetings to give ideas.

"Finally, there was an opportunity," she said.

But instead of using parents' ideas to improve public schools, she said, officials used their criticism to justify expanding charters.

Cerf said that's not the case. More money has gone to traditional public schools than to charters, he said, and charter growth is on the same trajectory as it was in 2006, before Zuckerberg's involvement.

Garth Davenport, a 51-year-old single father with 6-year-old twins, said he believes Newark's public schools are doing better for his sons, both of whom have autism, than the schools in neighboring East Orange did when the boys were very young. He said that he's had problems with administrative issues, such as transportation, but that his sons dive into their homework every night and seem to be increasingly communicative. He credits their schools with that.

"They're picking up," he said.

Last year, Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announced a $120 million donation to improve the educations, especially of low-income students, in the San Francisco Bay area. Zuckerberg's Startup:Education foundation says it's applying some lessons from Newark, especially about "the importance of meaningful community partnerships."

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