Why $100 million + was not enough to fix urban schools in Newark, N.J.

An audacious plan to fix the schools in Newark, N.J., (a city beset by poverty and violence) can educate us all about effective school reform. In 2010, the mayor of Newark (Cory Booker) enlisted the support of the governor of New Jersey (Chris Christie) and together, they secured $100 million in funding (with the goal to supplement with matching funds) from Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerburg to turn around failing Newark public schools. Their goal was to implement all the currently accepted “best” ideas in education reform: 1) expand charter schools 2) fire teachers with bad evaluations 3) reward teachers whose students received good test scores and 4) manage the school district like a business. They believed that successful execution of these strategies would make the Newark, N.J. school district a model for school reform nationwide.


Governor Chris Christie, Oprah Winfrey, Cory Booker and Mark Zuckerberg announce their school reform plans on the Oprah Winfrey show. The people of Newark had to wonder why they were learning about this on the Oprah Winfrey show!

The failures and successes of this well intentioned effort reinforce and inform the working model of One School at a Time.

First, what worked in this grand experiment?

There was one major improvement- the number of children going to public charter schools in Newark doubled in a short time. In Newark, charter schools dramatically outperform district schools because while starting out with less money, they get more resources directly to the kids in the classroom (for example, 2 teachers and a learning specialist in every grade, more social workers and a dean of students to help at risk kids with challenging home environments).

Now, what didn’t work?
Newark community members, teachers, parents, students and principals were never included in the process of identifying what the challenges were and how best to fix them. The local’s knowledge was not honored and acted upon. Outside consultants and administrators made decisions (driven by the opinions of wealthy donors) without community input. This top-down approach poisoned the community’s process. Stakeholders felt invisible and alienated and consequently, they rebelled against the outsider’s well intentioned efforts.

The deadline to complete the reforms was 5 years. And these reforms were spearheaded by politicians whose political terms were finite and whose priorities shifted with the demands of the next election.

The reforms did not address the needs of the whole school but focused on addressing just a few elements.

The funding for the reforms was not sustainable. Zuckerburg’s primary goal was to reward the best teachers and eliminate the worst teachers. For instance, Zuckerburg wanted to pay enormous bonuses to the best teachers. But this was not possible since after 5 years, Zuckerburg’s funding would be gone and the program discontinued. In addition, Zuckerburg was not informed that teachers were protected by state laws so that most senior teachers kept their jobs in downsizing events, regardless of how well they did their jobs.

Large sums of money were paid to the consultants in the “school failure” industry and few resources trickled down to the schools.


The lessons:
The process of change must be rooted in the community for the change to be successful. Community members and stakeholders should be involved at every step of the process. They need to be driving the bus.

Change takes a long time- generations. The process must be spearheaded by people who live in the community and who are dedicated to staying there for the long term. Politicians and outside NGOS move on. The local people endure.

A school is an ecosystem- fixing just one thing will not repair the whole: Dale Russakoff, the author of “The Prize: Who’s In Charge Of America’s Schools? states,”But if you’re really close to the ground and you’re inside a school, you know that it’s not like there is one thing wrong when a school is failing. There’s usually, like, 50 to 100, maybe 500 things wrong. And you have to fix all of them, and it’s really tedious work. It’s not like a big idea and a new thing. It’s something that you have to just do slowly and patiently and often tediously”.

Funding must be long term and sustainable.

Resources need to go directly to the schools. Funding highly paid outside consultants to fix other people’s problems does not typically yield the intended results.

One School at a Time incorporates these lessons into our very core:
One School at a Time uses a community-based approach and requires partner schools to identify their own needs and develop and implement their own strategic plan. Parents, teachers, community members and administrators are engaged and involved in every decision that is made.

2013-07-12 04.25.09

Our Ugandan partner schools develop a 5 year strategic plan and “smart goals”

One School at a Time partners with schools for the long term. All schools remain in our local school network, even after successful execution of their 5 year plan. Long-term relationships with our partner schools build trust, good working rapport and community empowerment.


One School at a Time currently has 5 partner schools serving over 2,100 students in Kassanda Sub-county, Uganda.

One School at a Time recognizes that a well functioning school is composed of much more than just buildings and infrastructure and we take a “whole school” approach.

Each partner school in the One School at a Time network is required to assist and encourage the next partner school, thereby building a local network of ongoing resources and support. Schools now look to each other for information, support, and training instead of to an outside NGO. By empowering a coalition of highly functioning public schools, One School at a Time creates the leverage needed to ensure that the Ugandan government allocates more resources to our partner schools.

Ky- The soil should be this much-The trainer instructs

Parents from one partner school teach the parents at the next partner school how to make bricks from pressed earth.

One School at a Time believes that the best qualified people to solve the challenges at our Ugandan partner schools are the teachers, parents, school administrators and community members of that school. 97% of One School funding is allocated to our Ugandan programs.

Brinstorming issues

Ugandan teachers brainstorming issues

To learn more about the work of One School at a Time: https://1schoolatatime.org/how-we-work/

This blog was informed by the following resources:

“Schooled”, Dale Russakoff, May 19, 2014, New Yorker


An Sept. 21, 2015 interview with Terry Gross (Fresh Air) and Dale Russakoff, who documented the Newark reform experiment in her book, “The Prize: Who’s In Charge Of America’s Schools”: http://www.npr.org/2015/09/21/442183080/assessing-the-100-million-upheaval-of-newarks-public-schools

  4 comments for “Why $100 million + was not enough to fix urban schools in Newark, N.J.

  1. March 6, 2016 at 8:40 am

    I apologize if my first cmemont to Kathy, she is indeed a beautiful person and i’m glad she’s stayed in the Newark school system. I just strongly believe that there’s no sense of community in Newark. I feel that if you hold a certain title like a teacher, doctor, police officer, firefighter living in the community give a since of hope to all, it can inspire you and influence you children want to become these things in life. But when all you know is that at the end of ones work shift they leave town and no one there to answer you questions, you feel alienated. This leaves a lasting impression I can recall when people stayed in a community until they parish. Can you recall during the summer seeing your favorite teacher at the corner store, this was the greatest feeling. Wonder why our inner city children don’t succeed as much as children in affluent communities. Take back our schools from the state stop creating charter school fix the problem we have in our public school. Fight for what you believe in. Get counselor in our schools that can help our children cope with their feelings and family matters. A healthy family does result in a mentally healthy child. Newark’s must unity and demand more, Newark is a beautiful city and deserves to be treated with respect.

    • March 6, 2016 at 6:08 pm

      Dede, Thanks for your comment about Newark’s school system. You are right- children are empowered when the teachers, doctors, police officers and firefighters live in their same community and model how to be a successful adult. Everyone benefits when community is cultivated… whether it is Newark, N.J., USA or Kassanda sub-county, Uganda.

  2. Johng836
    July 11, 2017 at 6:18 am

    Just wanna input on few general things, The website pattern is perfect, the subject material is real excellent. Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it. by Andre Gide. aagdbeecekab

    • August 2, 2017 at 5:20 pm

      Very wise saying! Here at One School we seek the truth and doubt we ever find it! It’s the process of seeking that is most important.

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