|Cami Anderson (Star-Leger file photo)|
Cami Anderson has been called a modern day "freedom fighter". Her field of battle is currently the school system of Newark, New Jersey. Appointed at age 40 as superintendent, she is trying to wrestle quality and equality out of one of America's worst school systems in the shadow of one of America's most failed cities. What Newark schools have been good at graduating up to now is majority black and Hispanic prisoners and teen welfare mothers. Nearly half of the kids drop out without a diploma. Anderson believes strongly that these Newark kids are damned early and often by a rotten school system that keeps repeating a curriculum that neither reaches nor teaches its students, stalled out in a corrupt city by teachers and principals employed because of whom they know, not what.
Anderson has an unusual background for the job, including things as varied as teaching Montessori and managing the creation of alternative schools in New York City. But her deep passion for righting the wrongs of the education system may come from her own personal background. Anderson was one of three children her parents had before they chose to adopt nine more. Many of her adopted siblings had darker skin and were plucked from tougher backgrounds. She saw how they were treated differently in school regardless of having the same last name and parents.Anderson says when she looks in on the Newark classrooms now, she often sees the faces of her brothers and sisters.
Cami Anderson has many advantages of timing in taking over Newark schools in 2012. She has the full support of Newark's passionately reformist mayor Cory Booker. Booker managed to snag a 100 million dollar grant for the schools from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. That grant has been matched by other, mostly financial interests. The money gives her room to roll and make her first, most important change--eight new principals of varied, unusual backgrounds. She believes no school undergoes a revolution without revolutionary at it's very core. She shuttered 7 schools because she saw them as too hopeless and under-performing to change. And Anderson battled opened the bureaucratic doors for five charter schools.
But it is a tenet of change that some people will cling to the familiar no matter how miserable it is. Some parents don't trust Cami Anderson because she is white, others because she does not come from Newark, others still for making any changes at all or throwing any concept of "better" in their faces. Those huge contributions to the school system are only a one shot wonder; she knows she will need to produce results fast. And Anderson sees education as a shared proposition. Kids completely unwilling can be unreachable. Others can be met where they are at and worked with from there, encompassing the communities they live in, the dangers they dodge to get to school, the negative attitudes towards education, and somehow teachers must discover each child's talents and work with them.
Many describe the difference between privileged and underprivileged kids as "accidents of birth". Cami Anderson is devoting her life to narrowing the vast gap in opportunity offered to kids in bad schools in a worse city. The differences in rich and poor neighborhoods. The differences in skin color. They need help. She is out to prove it is her help. She wants to open a broader world for Newark's children--one that finds their strengths and makes the most of them. She wants to change schools to expect the best from each kid, and graduate kids with skills that can get them into jobs or colleges. Not schools that damn them to the worst future possible: no expectations at all.