Just a few years back, Newark stood at the epicenter of an explosive nationwide campaign where traveling “change agents” tried to reshape urban school districts. Today, it could become the face of a different, homegrown model of change, led by a lifelong Newark resident named Roger Leon.
Leon was chosen this week to become the next superintendent of the Newark school system, which serves 36,000 students and has a roughly $1 billion budget. But long before that, he was a principal trying to revitalize long-floundering schools. Back then, he would gather together his staff members and deliver a simple but stirring message.
“‘All of the problems that exist here in this building — there’s a solution,’” he would say, recalled Havier Nazario, who was a teacher at Dr. William H. Horton School and later University High School when Leon was principal. “‘It’s right here in this room.’”
That message stood in sharp contrast to the one that Nazario felt was conveyed amid the upheaval under state-appointed superintendents Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, who stepped down in February when the state returned control of the district to Newark’s elected school board.
“There was this perception that we were backward — that everyone in Newark from teacher to principal was incompetent,” said Nazario, now the principal of South Street School in the Ironbound section. “That we needed an army from all over the place to come in and fix us.”
When the board voted unanimously in favor of Leon Tuesday night, positioning the longtime educator and administrator to become Newark’s first locally selected superintendent in over 20 years, it sent a clear signal: No more outside armies. We want someone who believes the solutions are in the room.
Not long ago, Newark came to epitomize the so-called “education reform” movement, which promised to transform districts by closing troubled schools, opening charter schools, and rewriting the rules around teacher pay and tenure — actions that have been linked to the district’s recent academic gains. Yet the city has also morphed into an emblem of the movement’s pitfalls: outraged parents, top-down policymaking, and disruptive outsiders, like Anderson, who were eventually run out of town.
Now, the question for Newark’s incoming schools chief is whether he can establish a new model — one that maintains the upward trajectory of test scores and graduation rates while avoiding the excesses and backlash of the reform era. And, crucially, a model that rejects the corruption and complacency that the state cited when it seized control of the district in 1995.
Just as the recent reformers hoped to turn Newark into a “proof point” for their theory of change and a template for other districts to adopt, Leon has suggested that he will make Newark into a model of homegrown, educator-driven and community-embraced change — though what exactly that will look like remains unclear.
“I want us, together, to help Newark serve as a lighthouse,” said Leon, a 25-year veteran of the Newark school system, at a public forum last week. “A beacon of light and hope for our urban districts.”
Newark’s recent wave of reform began in 2010 when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg famously appeared on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” to announce a $100 million investment in the city’s schools. The money helped bankroll a series of sweeping changes that included performance-based teacher pay, a single enrollment system for district and charter schools, and the shuttering of nearly a dozen district schools.
The policies sparked a battle that pitted the self-styled reformers against teachers, their union, and parents. Anderson, who had been recruited from New York, resigned in 2015. She was replaced by Cerf, the former state education commissioner who had helped craft Newark’s reform blueprint. When he took over, he made it his mission to create buy-in for the changes among community members and elected officials in an effort to prevent their dismantling when the district returned to local control.
“The continuation and preservation of the work,” Cerf told reporters in January, “depended a great deal on there being a collective sense of engagement and ownership.”
As further insurance, Cerf made A. Robert Gregory, a respected Newark principal who shared parts of his vision, his second-in-command, which helped position him to become interim schools chief when Cerf stepped down. Gregory was then selected as one of four superintendent finalists, along with Leon and two outside candidates.
While the board had indicated that it preferred a local candidate, it was unclear until the last minute which Newarker would come out on top. After the board interviewed the four men privately on Saturday, Gregory got the most votes in an informal poll, Chalkbeat has reported. But by the board’s closed-door meeting on Tuesday, enough members had changed their votes to give Leon an edge.
Once it was clear that Leon had a majority, the board members agreed to unanimously back him in their public vote. While they may have disagreed on their preferred candidate, they wanted to present a united front in favor of a locally chosen leader — and against state-imposed reformers.
“To unify the board at this time, it’s the right thing to do,” said board member Tave Padilla. “It’s a new day.”
Now that Leon has been tapped to take over as superintendent on July 1, speculation has started about the direction of his leadership. A district spokeswoman said he was not available for an interview for this story.
Critics of the reform movement have celebrated Leon’s selection as clear evidence that the board intends a clean break from the past. They note that, unlike the recent state-appointed superintendents and some of their top deputies and consultants, Leon is a Newark native who attended and taught in the city’s traditional public schools. He coached Science Park High School’s famed debate team, and has established close ties with parents and community leaders across the city — support that was on display when the audience erupted into cheers after Tuesday’s vote.
They also point to Leon’s reportedly fraught relationship with Cerf as an indication that he did not endorse the entire reform agenda, even though he served in both Anderson and Cerf’s administrations. In a Facebook post this week, Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon called Leon’s selection “a unanimous blow to the corporate charter and reform-for-personal profit war machine.”
Cerf, in an email, said he has “always respected Roger” and will support him and the board’s decision.
“NPS has seen record achievement gains over the last several years,” he said, “and I know Roger is committed to building on those foundations to achieve greater and greater success for Newark’s students.”
If some supporters portray Leon as anti-reform, his record is actually more complex.
As principal of the Horton School in the late 1990s, he hired about 20 teachers who had completed alternative-certification programs, according to an Education Week article from 2000. Teachers unions sometimes attack such programs, which include reform-friendly programs such as Teach For America, as a back door that allows unqualified educators into the classroom.
As an assistant superintendent for the past decade, Leon served under four state-appointed superintendents. Under Anderson, when he was responsible for overseeing several elementary schools, he developed a reputation as a demanding manager who made unannounced school visits and scrutinized school documents to see if they were in compliance with district rules, according to a former district employee. Several of the principals he oversaw left the system, the employee added.
Whatever policy preferences Leon may have as superintendent, he is likely to find — like other leaders who took over districts after they underwent massive overhauls, such as nearby New York City — that it’s impossible to simply turn back the clock.
Over the past decade, the share of Newark students who attend charter schools has tripled, to 33 percent. While Leon is not likely to spur on the sector’s growth, he also cannot halt it. Instead, he will have to manage its impact on the district’s budget and perhaps find ways for the sectors to collaborate. (Leon got an early start on that this week when he spoke at a principal training jointly hosted by the district and the Uncommon Schools charter network.)
Charter critics and some school board members have pushed to scrap the universal enrollment system, which allows families to apply to both charter and district schools. But many families have come to like the system, according to surveys. And it would be hard to revive the previous system, where families were assigned to their nearest district school, since some neighborhood schools were shuttered.
Mary Bennett, a former Newark principal who called Leon “extremely intelligent,” said she did not expect him to immediately unwind every policy instituted under state control.
“I’m sure that he is astute enough to distinguish between those things that have been put in place that are working but need to be improved and bolstered,” she said, “and those things that should be changed and replaced.”
Leon will soon shoulder the burden of leading a district that has made recent gains, but still struggles with deep-rooted problems including widespread student poverty, absenteeism, and a shortage of qualified teachers. All the while, he must try to prove — to state officials, but also to observers across the country — that a return to local control does not necessarily mean a pause in progress.
But for now, he seems to be basking in the moment. On Wednesday morning, the day after he was chosen to lead the system where he was educated and spent his entire career, he stopped by his childhood elementary school. Then he made his way to South Street School led by Principal Nazario, who he had years ago coached on a debate team, taught in class, and later managed as a teacher.
At South Street, Leon was named honorary “Teacher of the Month,” then presented with a school notebook and water bottle and given a round of applause, Nazario said.
“He looked at me like, ‘Wow, I’m living the dream,’” he said.