Even though it's not in my nature, you have to just, like, take a minute, because it's a big deal." We're in Cami Anderson's private office. The Newark, New Jersey, school superintendent has just held a joint press conference with the head of the teachers' union to announce a historic contract. Half of a $100 million donation made by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to the Newark Public School system in 2010 will sweeten a new agreement with teachers, who have been working without a contract for two and a half years. There will be a new performance-evaluation system, incorporating peer review, as well as bonuses for teachers who opt out of the old seniority rules—carrots alongside sticks. The agreement is already being hailed nationwide as groundbreaking.
Anderson—41, tall, broad-shouldered, blue-eyed—sits back in her chair, pulling her hair into a ponytail. The cinder-block walls and dead-fish fluorescent lighting contribute to the vibe of a locker room after a big win. The challenge in Newark is intense: Nearly half the students drop out, and 90% of graduates who do go to college need remedial classes. For Anderson, who counts among her supporters Democratic Newark mayor Cory Booker and Republican New Jersey governor Chris Christie, the scrutiny is equally intense; Booker has announced a Senate run, and Christie is widely expected to run for President, with both likely to tout her achievements on the campaign trail. As Joel Klein, Anderson's boss when he was chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, says, "Nobody gives you $100 million and says, 'Have a happy life.'"
When Anderson was offered the job as Newark superintendent, she almost turned it down, wary of the national spotlight. "My female CEO friends had to do an intervention," she says. "They sat me down and said, 'Don't be a girl. Take the mike.'" She's shown little uncertainty since then. "I got into this because I feel like education is an opportunity to make good on the promise of America," she says, "to stop being a country where race and poverty determine your life outcomes." Wendy Kopp, who runs Teach for America, where Anderson started her career, says: "I don't think there's a more perfect example of someone coming into a situation and operating on the highest of expectations—both for kids and for adults." Booker calls Anderson "someone I'm in awe of." Says Klein: "She literally takes your breath away."
It's morning, and I climb into the messy backseat of Anderson's black Escalade, her official city ride. Her driver, Billy Jarrett, hands her a foil-wrapped egg sandwich, another in a long succession of foil-wrapped meals. She reaches back to shake my hand, but quickly; we're running behind.
To watch Anderson at work is to witness an adroit professional bound by a creaking bureaucracy. At the Board of Education headquarters at 2 Cedar Street, an executive assistant, already sitting at her desk, will not lift a ringing phone from its cradle until the clock ticks over from 8:59 to 9:00. Anderson is often away at that hour, dedicating three mornings a week to observing teachers in the classroom and debriefing with principals. We are headed to two of her schools this morning. We listen as a kindergarten teacher reads to her pupils, then eavesdrop on a discussion in an all-boys middle-school civics class. Afterward, Anderson shares her moment-by-moment observations with the teachers' principals, all with actionable feedback: Give young children—whom she calls "the little people"—positive examples of behavior, rather than telling them what not to do; push teens to ground their discussion in facts and evidence. These points tie directly into learning goals that principals and teachers are responsible for together.
Anderson grew up in a decidedly unconventional household in Manhattan Beach, California. Her mother, Sheila, worked in the foster care system for 32 years and opened their home to those who were hard to place, with a new member joining the family almost every year. Two were the children of American GIs and Vietnamese women. Many had special needs—one came to their home after a year of operations at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.
At its peak, the family had nine teenagers and operated a little like a kibbutz, with weekly meetings over fondue or popcorn, and an official rotation for each team of siblings to do laundry or cook dinner. Anderson was a long-distance swimmer and basketball player on the boys' team, and she sang, danced, and acted. She was passionate about social justice even then. "At a very young age," says her mother, "she understood that [her siblings] had a start in life that was different from hers."
Anderson moved quickly after arriving in Newark in the summer of 2011. Within several months, she announced the closure of six low-performing, under-enrolled schools. She cut 120 jobs and replaced 17 principals. She added seats in pre-K and an early-college dual-enrollment program, and created eight "Renew" schools that have extra training for teachers, hiring bonuses for high-needs classes, more computers and Wi-Fi, and more access to social services such as nurses, social workers, and community mentoring.
She has already been tested. Parents' groups have sued the mayor's office seeking fuller disclosure of the arrangements behind the Zuckerberg money, springing in part from a deep streak of local resentment at the idea of outsiders—especially powerful, moneyed outsiders—imposing their own agenda. Even shrinking schools with abysmal test scores can be beloved neighborhood institutions. "She went to a brutal public meeting," says Booker. "You have hundreds of people screaming and shouting and threatening you. She was able to stand in the saddle, present her vision and the plan, and do it in a way that showed a remarkable courage. And now the schools that people were yelling and screaming about—they're extraordinary models of promise and hope."
One evening I meet Anderson at a cavernous sports bar near the Newark train station. We're joined by her partner, Jared Robinson, and their blue-eyed, curly-haired 3-year-old son, Sampson. She pulls out a red plastic binder with a set of spreadsheets outlining her six "pillars," or priorities: students, teachers, school leaders, her administrative team, charter schools and other outside options, and families and stakeholders. Each pillar is aligned with specific objectives to be accomplished by July 30. At the end of every week, she reviews what she's done, looks ahead, and makes a to-do list. Then she considers her priorities for the year and makes a second list—the steps she would take to achieve her long-term goals if she had nothing urgent on her plate. Finally she adds the second list to the first and divides the whole into three piles: do it, delegate it, or shelve it.
I see a flash of the toughness I've heard about when I float a remark from Klein, now the director of News Corp.'s education unit, that the ample spending in Newark schools—$23,000 per student, among the highest in the nation—removes an "easy excuse" for poor performance. "That's a little shitty of my good friend Joel to say. That would be a fair assessment if we didn't have LIFO," she says, referring to "last in, first out," the seniority rule. "Okay, I'm going to give you a pile of money, Joel, to run your shop. If you want to downsize from 50 to 25 and take that money and invest it in technology or whatever, you will have the 25 most senior people, regardless of quality. Now turn around your company."
This January, Anderson was invited to the annual meeting of the William Morris Endeavor talent agency, where 450 clients and execs gathered for a mini-TED conference, with speakers that included Karl Rove, Al Gore, and Zappos's Tony Hsieh. Anderson spoke about education as a civil right, contrasting the standard visions of innovation and transformation with the reality of the schools in her city, which still use purple mimeograph machines from the 1960s. She was mobbed as she got off the stage, and for the rest of the weekend too. The spotlight beckons.
[Photos by Jeff Mermelstein]
A version of this article appeared in the May 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.
Slideshow Credits: 01 / Photos by Jeff Mermelstein;