A year has gone by since Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced his plans on The Oprah Winfrey Show to donate $100 million to Newark schools.
The beleaguered city he chose to sponsor was in desperate need of reform. Only 54 percent of students graduated from high school, and third-grade proficiency levels in reading and math were only about 40 percent.
How much difference can $100 million make?
By all accounts, the spending of the Facebook money initially got off to a rocky start. The first $1 million was used to fund a public survey called “Partnership for Education in Newark,” which critics called a waste of money.
In subsequent months, with new schools superintendent Cami Anderson on board, and Greg Taylor of Foundation for Newark’s Future chosen to manage the gift, community leaders reported that Zuckerberg’s money finally began reaching its intended recipients: Newark’s kids.
Here’s how the next $8 million was spent:
1. Bard High School Early College opened in September 2011, offering underserved students the opportunity to earn a New Jersey high school diploma, 60 college credits, and an associate’s degree in liberal arts from Bard College.
2. Newark BRIDGES High School opened as a small experimental school geared toward students struggling in the traditional public school system.
3. Newark Leadership Academy was launched as an alternative public vocational high school for at-risk youth. Students up to age 20 earn high school diplomas, GEDs, and trade certificates in construction. Many were former dropouts or recently released from prison.
4. The school day was extended by up to two hours in 10 existing public schools.
5. The Foundation for Newark’s Future announced a two-year $600,000 program that will provide $10,000 grants to teachers or groups of teachers who come up with innovative classroom programs.
6. A literacy program was given $176,000 to distribute children’s books.
Only 54 percent of [Newark’s] students graduated from high school, and third-grade proficiency levels in reading and math were only about 40 percent.
Shavar Jeffries, a Newark School Board member, praised the most recent investments. “I think they’re just getting started, from what I’ve seen,” he said. “It’s very important to facilitate opportunities for teachers to be entrepreneurial and use their professional expertise and judgment to meet the needs of the kids.”
But while some of Newark’s kids enjoy the fruits of Zuckerberg’s generosity, many still attend failing schools that are grossly underfunded. Their parents worry that the Facebook money isn’t being spent wisely, or benefitting enough students.
One mother told NBC News that she hasn’t yet seen a single difference in her son’s school. “It’s killing me inside,” she said. Her third grader’s classroom doesn’t even have enough textbooks to send home with students who need to practice reading.
Other critics, like Newark Teachers Union President Joe Del Grosso, are troubled by the ongoing secrecy surrounding the gift’s disbursement.
“We don’t know what the foundation is doing or how they intend to spend the other money,” Del Grosso commented. “With that money comes a responsibility to the public to be clear about its use.”
In addition to the $91 million that remain, private donors have already raised another $48 million with the goal of matching Zuckerberg’s gift.
While hopes are still high that the Facebook donation can help set Newark schools on a better trajectory, Superintendent Anderson put Zuckerberg’s gift in perspective: His $100 million plus $100 million in matching funds only account for about four percent of the school district’s five-year operating budget.
“No matter how much we could raise privately, it would still be a small percentage of the overall money we spend,” she explained. “So we have to use that money wisely to drive innovation. We also need to make our public dollars stretch further than they do now.”
Newark’s Mayor Cory Booker remained optimistic about the gift but appealed to his constituents for patience. “We’re not going to reform the whole system overnight,” he said. “But we’re making steady progress, measurable progress.”