Transforming Schools With Five Ingredients

Newark is a city comprised primarily of financially struggling residents -- with over 50 percent receiving public assistance and 71 percent of students eligible for free lunch.
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Newark is a city comprised primarily of financially struggling residents -- with over 50 percent receiving public assistance and 71 percent of students eligible for free lunch. The neighborhood surrounding Alexander Street Elementary School is among the poorest in the city. Time and again, research affirms that young people in our poorest neighborhoods are extremely likely to be in failing schools. To be more blunt, in America, in the 21st century, a child's zip code can reliably predict their ability to attain academic excellence, post-secondary education, and access to the American dream of economic prosperity. If you believe as I do, that every student, in any zip code can succeed at the highest levels, and that it is the obligation of adults to create the conditions for success, then you can understand why I enthusiastically accepted the role as Superintendent of Newark Public Schools almost four years ago.

My team discovered that Alexander had been saddled with several labels. One predecessor called it "struggling" and the other "Tier 1", different ways of describing a school that consistently posted inadequate results. Unfortunately, the school's performance reflected exactly what statistics would predict: only 29 percent of students could read at or above grade level. Beyond low-test scores, community dissatisfaction was high, enrollment was plummeting as families voted with their feet, and classroom visits revealed unprepared and uninspired teachers. There also appeared to be no sense of urgency to change what adults seemed to have accepted as the inevitable, unfortunate fate of their school, and therefore their students.

I cried the first time I visited Alexander. The conditions of the school were that depressing. In the majority of the classrooms I visited there was no explicit, let alone rigorous and skillful, instruction occurring. Crumbling paint, dirty restrooms, and buckled floors reminded me of something out of a Jonathan Kozol book. The principal was filing papers in his office, and when I challenged the state of teaching and facilities, he seemed to have accepted the staggering lack of quality as an intractable fact -- "This is a tough neighborhood". I couldn't believe it. A radical solution was needed; it was simply unconscionable that we allowed students to attend a school that was overtly squandering their extraordinary potential. We simply cannot accept poverty as a passport to terrible schools.

In the 1990s, we called excellent schools in high-poverty neighborhoods "90/90/90 schools", where 90 percent of students received free/reduced lunch and 90 percent could read and do math at or above proficiency. Around 2000, this morphed into the "excellent schools" movement. After that, the charter movement radically accelerated the number of "proof points" that flew in the face of the flawed argument that you have to end poverty before creating excellent schools for kids in impoverished neighborhoods. High-performing schools of all types started to change the question from "can poor kids excel academically?" to "why can't we create the conditions to ensure that all kids excel academically?" One by one, school-by-school, excellent public charter schools and traditional public schools have begun to prove at scale and beyond a shadow of a doubt that we can reverse intergenerational cycles of poverty by giving kids access to schools that "beat the odds."

I have been lucky enough to observe and engage with dozens of practitioners and researchers who have made it their life's work to build more of these schools. What has emerged are five essential ingredients for creating and maintaining effective schools: (1) A transformational leader that possesses the skill and will to set and attain previously unthinkable goals; (2) A school culture with a clear mission and core values that are consistently reinforced by students and adults; (3) Teachers who are selected for excellence and fit with school culture; (4) A flexible budget process that allows resources to be invested in goals that include 21st century learning environments, top-notch curricula, and more time-on-task; and (5) Families who are partners in their child's education and who are excited to drop their kids off at school.

As we looked across Newark Public Schools, our team realized that most of these five ingredients were not present in many of our schools. We asked ourselves some tough questions. How could we ensure the five ingredients of success in every school? What barriers were preventing NPS from making that happen? Knowing that every year a child attends a failing school is a year that can quite literally diminish their life options, how could we put the ingredients together quickly? How was it possible that in the West Ward of Newark, you had a traditional school like Alexander where 29 percent of students were reading at grade level and down the street a public charter school like North Star Fairmont Elementary where 72 percent of students were reading at grade level? When presented with these startling statistics, who could blame the families leaving traditional Newark Public Schools in search of better options?

With 10,000 families already enrolled in charter schools and nearly 11,000 on waiting lists -- it was clear NPS was late to the game. Absent a viable solution within the district, families began voting with their feet, and the outcome was devastating. Our already-failing schools were getting worse, and each year becoming more sparsely populated with students in greater need of support. And even in a city with "bright spots" and schools posting beat-the-odds results, we were in danger of implementing what has been referred to as the "speedboat" theory of school reform. Charters and new district schools build viable options for some students -- most often the most proficient and/or the students whose families are able to exercise choice in a given community -- while leaving the most in-need students with nothing more than a life preserver.

When I arrived in Newark, the district consisted of about 100 schools with only 15 that could have been described as "good" and 22 as persistently failing. We had an idea, one that seemed simple but turned out to be bold. What if we were agnostic about the "type" of school but fierce on ensuring four things: (1) All schools in Newark were making fast progress towards having the five ingredients for success; (2) All neighborhoods had access to excellent neighborhood schools; (3) All kids -- including students with disabilities, students in need of English language services, and students who previously struggled -- had access to excellence; and (4) All schools were measured by the same yardstick. This "master plan" that we envisioned became One Newark.

On some level, One Newark is a simple vision: excellent schools in thriving communities for all students. This idea led to a series of critical and, yes, sweeping changes.

We launched a cohort of "Renew Schools", traditional public schools that we committed to "restart" with fierce fidelity to the five ingredients of success. Among the core shifts within our Renew Schools are the requirements to re-staff, through the re-hiring of existing staff and the recruitment of new talent, and to extend the school day.

Given evidence of high parental demand for charters, we collaborated with charters that had approved expansion plans, to take over persistently failing district schools. This effort helped to reinforce our neighborhood schools, which were rapidly deteriorating as the result of the continued growth of charters downtown. In addition to working with charters to serve our high-need neighborhoods, we worked diligently to ensure the take-over of "whole schools" (not just one grade at a time), to cut down on student mobility. If charter operators had a track record of results, were willing to keep the previous school name, accepted neighborhood kids, and committed to the four core values outlined above, then why wouldn't we partner with them? It made sense.

We also expanded our high school choice process to include K-8 students and worked with charters to make it one system -- "Universal Enrollment." This increased universal family choice and allowed us to begin leveling the playing field, by giving all families the opportunities previously enjoyed by a small handful of parents.

I recently observed Alexander, and this time I was emotional for other reasons. North Star Academy, a high-performing charter organization that has been in Newark for over a decade, has brought such purpose, excellence, and urgency to Alexander. It feels like a different place, almost overnight. Equally profound, the transformational leader we hired to lead the school in its last year as an NPS school, Maria Ortiz, is now leading a second generation "Renew School" nearby. Maria attended North Star Academy's Principal training program last summer, and brought many lessons from her charter colleagues to her new role. At the training, she and her NPS colleagues also pushed the charter leaders on better serving students with disabilities and attending to the social and emotional growth of students. I have no doubt that Maria will give Juliana Worrell, the Alexander Street Elementary Principal, a run for her money in putting together the ingredients for success and getting breakthrough, beat-the-odds results. The good news: with "coopetition," cooperation and competition combined, kids win.

Our team measures success quite simply. How fast are we moving toward the day when every student is in a school with the five ingredients to beat the odds? We are proud to say that when we got here, very few of our students fell into that category. Just 3.5 short years later, that number is growing rapidly. We wake up every day with a passion to get that number to 100 percent. If one school can do it, if Alexander can do it, then all schools can.

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