A New Charter School In Newark Faces Growing Pains

Fraught with challenges and sprinkled with successes, the first year of People’s Prep, a new charter high school in Newark, tested the mettle of staff and students alike.

Photo by Danielle Austen.

Just before eight on a bright spring morning, 95 ninth-graders in blue polo shirts and khakis line up outside a three-story brick building in Newark located between a bail bondsman’s office and a block of homes with barred windows. The building, long a neighborhood middle school, in August 2011 became home to People’s Preparatory Charter School, a fledgling charter high school that completed its first year in June.

As students file in, school leader Jess Rooney—she has the duties of executive director and principal—stands squarely in the entrance greeting them. Each child shakes her hand, as expected. Baseball caps don’t get past her. Neither does chewing gum. Spotting some stragglers, Rooney cries, “You should be running!” The laggards pick up their pace to avoid demerits for lateness.

Inside, the staff is finishing its morning warm-up. They cheer a new teacher, telling him he “killed it” on his third day in the classroom. The school social worker wins applause when he announces the first practice of the school’s long-awaited basketball team. The teachers, all under age 30, lean in for a huddle. “People’s Prep!” they shout, and disappear up the stairwell to start their day.

“The work we do is hard,” says assistant school leader Monica Villafuerte. “When we start off the day encouraging each other and laughing, it lifts our spirits, it helps us feel like a team. And we model that for our students.”

People’s Prep is not school as usual. The school day and the school year are longer. Students have to wear uniforms, take double periods of math and English, and turn in daily homework directly to school leaders. For those needing extra help, there are mandatory Saturday classes. Parents must come to school to collect report cards.

The school opened last fall with every ninth-grade slot taken and 35 names on the waiting list. By April, all spots in the 2012-2013 freshman class were filled, with more than 100 kids left on the waiting list.

People’s Prep wrestles with some of the same issues that confront other Newark schools, public or charter. Many of its students come from single-parent households, and more than 90 percent of the students live below federal poverty levels. Academically, the initial group of 95—all ninth-graders—were performing two or three years behind grade level. When the school first assessed them, the results were bleak: 18, lacking fundamental math skills, struggled to add, subtract, multiply and divide. One sudent’s reading skills were at a second-grade level, while others tested at a fourth-grade level.

Then there were social issues. By the time the school year ended, two Prep students were pregnant and two boys had fathered children. One teen struggled to cope with the murder of her 17-year-old brother followed by the death of her father. Another girl, whose grades had fluctuated wildly, turned out to be living most of the time with her 17-year-old brother.

But the inaugural year produced success stories, too. There is Finesse Jeffers, a tall, willowy teen who emerged from detention one day to find she had earned the school’s highest grade in physics. And 15-year-old Shante Smith, who had a baby in March but was back in class a month later, determined to make it through high school and college.

“The teachers are strict, but it’s for a good cause,” says Jeffers. “I know they want me to be the best I can be.” She learned about the school when a staff member visited her neighborhood. Now she wants to major in physics in college. “I want to go to an Ivy League school, and [People’s Prep] is how I’ll get there.”

Indeed, the school’s mission is to send students to college. The initial freshman class is known as the class of 2019, not for the year they are expected to graduate from People’s Prep, but for the year they would earn their bachelor’s degrees. Overall in Newark, where more than half of entering high school students fail to pass state-mandated math and English tests, the odds are against a student finishing high school, let alone college. The most recent statistics show that only 62 percent of ninth-graders ever graduate. People’s Prep—like the city’s other charters—aims to dramatically improve those odds.

One way it does that is with a strict code of rules meant to prevent disruptions in learning. On any given day, up to half the student body are given lunch detention—during which they are confined to a classroom and eat lunch under the supervision of a teacher—for things like speaking out of turn in class, lateness, inattentiveness, rudeness and other infractions. Teachers do all they can to help kids overcome obstacles such as lateness, whether it means buying a bus pass for one student or making a wake-up call every morning to another.

“This is the toughest thing I’d ever thought I’d do. When challenges have been addressed, new ones arise,” said Rooney in May, reflecting on the school’s first year. “But kids leaving [for summer vacation] this year can tell you what their academic goals are, can calculate their GPAs, can talk to you at length about the books they read in independent reading and tell you 12 different ways to use a comma. And they are thinking about their future. But it will take four years—eight really—to see if we fulfill our mission.”

Newark is fertile ground for the charter-school movement. Mayor Cory Booker views charters as one way to improve education in his city. His zeal for reform, coupled with backing from Governor Chris Christie, attracted the attention of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who in 2010 offered the city $100 million to overhaul Newark’s schools. Some of that money is funding People’s Prep, which in its first school year had a $2.4 million operating budget.

The city is also home to the Newark Charter School Fund, dedicated to opening quality charters. It was established in 2008 with $18 million from national foundations aiming to provide more high-quality options for students. An estimated 10,000 Newark kids out of a total of 38,000 district students are on waiting lists for specific charter schools—most of them elementary schools. The state approved two more charter high schools to open in Newark later this school year, adding to the existing four.

Rooney was selected by the fund in the summer of 2010 and trained for a year to lead what would become People’s Prep. A graduate of Smith College, Rooney had previously taught on the Lower East side. At 28, she was awarded a residency in educational leadership by the national, nonprofit New Leaders for New Schools. As part of her year-long residency, she worked as a principal-in-residence in a high school in the Bronx.

Petite, with dark, chin-length hair and a tattooed wrist, Rooney, now 31, looks more like a student than like an administrator. But her ability to take charge is unmistakable. Shortly after she began her training with the fund, New Jersey failed to qualify for $14 million in federal grants aimed at starting charter schools. Although she’d never written a grant before, Rooney prepared a 250-page application and took the unusual step of submitting it directly to the federal government. People’s Prep was one of just 12 schools nationwide chosen by the feds for the grant—$600,000 over three years.

Rooney’s search for students to fill the new school—a stand-alone, unaffiliated with any charter-school management organization—stretched from January through July 2011. The Newark district resisted her efforts to recruit in its schools. Instead, she spent Saturdays that summer knocking on doors, visiting churches, laundromats, summer camps, hair salons and fast-food joints, wherever there were kids. Rooney says the school didn’t handpick students; the seats were filled on a first-come, first-served basis. “I never even saw grades,” she says. By August 2011, more than 90 kids from 23 different middle schools had signed on.

Hazima Washington enrolled her son, Justice Gallette. She was impressed that teachers had not only come to her house over the summer, they had videotaped Justice to help acquaint the staff with him. She decided People’s Prep would provide more structure than the Christian prep school Justice had been attending. She thought that would improve his grades. Like other parents, she was eager to commit to the school’s rigorous college-prep program and its focus on character development.

So was Tanasia Davis’s mother, Inas Bilal. Her daughter was frequently in trouble in middle school and was earning dismal grades ranging from Cs to Fs. At that school, Bilal saw kids screaming and cursing in the hallways. She wanted more for Tanasia. Someone at the middle school mentioned People’s Prep. Bilal quickly got the application and sent it in. Tanasia became one of the 95. Two weeks before the rest of Newark went back to school, People’s Prep opened its doors to its first freshman class.

The former Camden Street School stands on Bergen Street, just blocks from the University of Medicine and Dentistry and not far from the Fifth Precinct police station. Sirens wail all day long. Newark had closed Camden as part of a plan to consolidate underperforming schools. Now the building houses three high schools—People’s Prep and two nontraditional public high schools, Bridges High and Bard High School Early College.

Even with three schools within its walls, the big building is not full. Rooms are spacious and bright; sunlight streams through banks of windows. In his People’s Prep classroom, English teacher Nathan Patton has taped to the walls inspirational quotes from Rosa Parks, Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela and Harriet Tubman. One of the school’s more experienced teachers, Patton started his career with Teach for America. He came to People’s Prep from TEAM Academy Charter Middle School in Newark, bringing a colleague from his Teach for America days, math instructor Keith Robinson.

On a breezy October day, eight weeks into the school year, 21 kids are at their desks as Patton reads a passage from “Briefcase,” a short story by National Book Award winner and Jersey City resident Walter Dean Myers.

It’s a tale of a black bicycle messenger in New York who feels inferior. Myers’s story—he often tackles issues of race and class—captures the attention of students, as Patton anticipated. Patton chose it in part because of its similarities to the next piece the kids will read, James Joyce’s “Counterparts,” from Dubliners. He wants them to see the parallels between the modern-day tale and a story written a century ago.

As Patton leans on the corner of an empty desk, reading aloud, the students are alert and engaged. No one misbehaves. They offer quick responses to questions designed to help them think critically about why the protagonist lashes out at people.

Patton reads a section in which the bicycle messenger spies a man in a suit and tie on a train. The bicyclist shows disdain, convinced the man isn’t what he seems—a well-dressed businessman—but rather someone who is pretending, whose briefcase is filled, not with important paperwork, but old newspapers.

“So do you think the guy really is a fake businessman, or is he going to work?” Patton asks. “Why would he get dressed up in a charcoal-grey suit if he doesn’t really work in an office? Why does the narrator say he’s faking it?”

Finesse Jeffers, wearing a bright-pink sweater, suggests the messenger doesn’t believe the man is a businessman because he is black. The messenger, by contrast, has a low-paying job, no education and no prospects of seeing his life improve. He is jealous.

Justice Gallette says the messenger denigrates others to feel better about himself. “He is ashamed. He thinks people are laughing at him because of what he does. He’s doubting himself.”

“I agree with that 100 percent,” says Patton.

Patton wants the students to reflect on the connections between the story and their own lives, to understand that the character is resentful and angry because he feels powerless. “My goal is to point that out, to say, ‘Do you know people like this, or are you a person like this?’” he says. “I want them to think compassionately and critically about the people around them.” Today he is pleased. The students get it. 

Now it’s January, and an English class has hit a milestone: 60 percent of the kids have completed all their homework. Rooney is elated. Homework had been a nagging problem throughout the school. In the Fall, on an average day, just 10 to 15 percent of students were turning in completed assignments. Rooney has e-mailed her staff about the issue, calling for “ice,” a sports metaphor for a way to heal a wound.

She considers whether the assignments are too difficult, but decides against making the work easier. “We will not lower our expectations,” she says. “Show me a college that would do that.”

Instead, a public homework tracking board is hung in the hallway. Students who completed their homework in all six subjects get an “X” by their name. In the early going, the board had more blanks than Xs. Slowly that begins to change.

Later in the year, the staff launches a weekly competition. Each teacher leads a council comprised of 11 kids they mentor. As part of the competition, a weekly Council Cup is awarded to the group racking up the most points from completed homework, daily attendance, proper uniform and good grades.

Teaching kids to treat others with compassion and respect is another crucial part of the People’s Prep mission, as embodied in its motto: “Intellect, empathy and action.’’ In March, when two girls settle an after-school disagreement with their fists and three of their classmates videotape the fight, the motto takes what seems a devastating blow.

Teachers are appalled when they watch the video. But to Rooney, it appears that the girls didn’t want to fight but were egged on by students gathered around them. About 20 of the students who had fanned the flames are suspended. Suspensions are staggered to prevent the students from hanging out together as if on vacation.

To Rooney’s surprise, parents are angry. Fighting, they say, is something that happens in Newark; kids have to stand up for themselves.

“They normalized the experience as if it’s part of growing up,” Rooney says. “Or they said, ‘That’s just Newark, that’s what we do here.’ It was their way of saying, ‘You can’t change it.’ I said, ‘If that’s the case, this school would not be here.’ This was not just about changing behaviors, but changing beliefs.”

Following the incident, the school set up a peer-mediation program, in which students on either side of a conflict sit down with a teacher to help them reach a resolution. Parents are given a book called Parenting Teens with Love and Logic, on how to raise responsible kids.

The two fighters, who could have been expelled, are allowed to remain at People’s Prep. But for several weeks they are tutored after everyone else’s classes are over. “At the end of the day, no matter how they damaged our school culture, we wanted them to stay,” Rooney explains. “This is the best place for them.”

On May 14, the first Council Cup winner is announced. Surprisingly, it goes to the all-female Hillsdale council, a group that had been lagging behind in the competition. First-year teacher Jenni Waller rallied the girls by challenging them to work together. She posted daily tallies of their progress.

As news of their victory spreads, Hillsdale’s students applaud and cheer. The girl who had been living with her teenage brother—and whose grades and attendance had fluctuated up and down—hoists the trophy in the air. For their efforts, the council members get a week of extra privileges, such as being able to wear street clothes instead of uniforms on spirit days. Hillsdale goes on to win two more times.

Since there are no state tests for ninth-graders, there was no data to gauge how well the first group of People’s Prep freshmen did in comparison to kids at other city schools. But the school had its its own benchmarks. Teachers issued assessments in math and English at six intervals during the school year. In the final assessment, gains were seen in all subjects, including physics, civics, math and English, according to Rooney.

Preliminary results of the Explore college-readiness tests—an exam administered by ACT, a college admissions testing service—also were positive. In English and language arts, for instance, 70 percent of students had scored in the bottom quartile compared to other students nationally when school started. By June, only 35 percent remained in the bottom quartile.

The staff also saw progress that couldn’t be measured by grades.

Finesse Jeffers—who at first barely shook Rooney’s hand at morning greeting and would arrive cursing and grumbling that she hated school—improved her grades and met a homework benchmark. She was awarded a fleece jacket emblazoned with the school logo and, for good behavior, an e-reader. She was proud of her accomplishments.

Sharod Neal, whose 25-year-old sister had become a surrogate parent to him after his mother died, emerged as a student leader. He wants to attend the University of Florida, like Robinson, his council mentor.

Tanasia Davis, whose brother was shot dead a few years ago and whose mother is raising six children alone, earned As and Bs.

And young mother Shante Smith chose to return to People’s Prep although she could have switched to Central High, which has on-site day care.

“I thought about it,” says Shante, a sweet-faced 15-year-old. “Then I looked at my report card, and I’ve been doing better here than at any other school. I’m motivated. And the teachers work with me.”

On June 29, the last day of school, the staff take the students to Philadelphia to tour the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University. In July, about 50 students return to their desks for two weeks of summer school to catch up on their classwork and ensure they will be ready for 10th grade. At the close of summer school, all but three students are able to  move to the next grade.

For Rooney, possibly the best validation is that all parents but two have decided to re-enroll their children at People’s Prep this fall. “Our students have made significant academic gains,” she says. “They’ve developed parts of their character that will serve them well and ultimately get them through college. It’s still a struggle, but we’re accomplishing what we set out to do.”
Bev McCarron is a freelance writer and a former education reporter for the Star-Ledger.


SIDEBAR: More Charters For Newark

More Charters For Newark

Four new charter schools will open this month in Newark, bringing the city’s total number of charters to 22. In all, 86 charter schools will be operating throughout New Jersey as of this month.

The charter-school movement’s focus on college preparation puts the schools in strong demand in Newark and elsewhere. Waiting lists for admission are the norm.

Ben Cope, spokesman for TEAM Academy Charter Schools, said there are more than 6,000 students on a waiting list for the group’s five schools, which serve kindergarten through 12th grade. The TEAM schools were established in Newark 10 years ago as part of the KIPP Academy charter-school network.

With two elementary school, two middle schools and a high school, TEAM has seats for 1,800. At Newark Collegiate Academy, the TEAM high school, 83 percent of students go on to higher education, according to school officials. “We have had a lot of success preparing and sending our kids off to college,” says Cope.
In addition to TEAM Academy, Newark’s charter high schools are North Star Academy, Visions Academy and People’s Preparatory Charter School.

The new charter schools slated to open in Newark this month are:

•     100 Legacy Middle and High School. The school will start with grades 6 through 8; it will eventually grow to grades 6 through 12 at full enrollment.
•    Merit Prep Middle and High School. Merit Prep will start with grade 6 and grow to grades 6 through 12 at full enrollment.
•    Newark Prep Charter School will start with grade 9 and expand to  grades 9 through 12.
•   The Paulo Freire School will also start at grade 9 and expand to grades 9 through 12.



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