Community Engagement Matters (Now More Than Ever)

In October 2010, three men - Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey; Cory Booker, who was then mayor of Newark, N.J.; and Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook - appeared together on The Oprah Winfrey Show to announce an ambitious reform plan for Newark Public Schools. On the show, Zuckerberg pledged a $100 million matching grant to support the goal of making Newark a model for how to turn around a failing school system. This announcement was the first time that most Newark residents heard about the initiative. And that wasn’t an accident.

Christie and Booker had adopted a top-down approach because they thought that the messy work of forging a consensus among local stakeholders might undermine the reform effort.1 They created an ambitious timeline, installed a board of philanthropists from outside Newark to oversee the initiative, and hired a leader from outside Newark to serve as the city’s superintendent of schools.

The story of school reform in Newark has become a widely cited object lesson in how not to undertake a social change project. Even in the highly charged realm of education reform, the Newark initiative stands out for the high level of tension that it created. Instead of generating excitement among Newark residents about an opportunity to improve results for their kids, the reform plan that emerged from the 2010 announcement sparked a massive public outcry. At public meetings, community members protested vigorously against the plan. In 2014, 77 local ministers pleaded with the governor to drop the initiative because of the toxic environment it had created. Ras Baraka, who succeeded Booker as mayor of Newark, made opposition to the reform plan a central part of his election campaign. The money that Zuckerberg and others contributed to support the reform plan is now gone, and the initiative faces an uncertain future.

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