Urban Success Stories

These exceptional high schools provide a road map for teaching inner-city kids.

Students Alison Vieira, Kassie Mahabir and Denilson Oliveira show their Elizabeth High School pride.
Students Alison Vieira, Kassie Mahabir and Denilson Oliveira show their Elizabeth High School pride.
Photo by Christopher Lane

Infusions of cash. Charter schools. Magnet schools. State takeovers. Vouchers. Dismantling teachers’ unions. At one time or another over the past three-plus decades, all have been suggested—alone or in combination—as the solution to turn around the generally dismal performance of New Jersey’s inner-city public schools. In 2010, in response to a call for “transformational change” in the Newark public school system put forth by the unlikely duo of then-mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat, and Republican governor Chris Christie, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced that he would donate $100 million to help achieve the transformation. Six years later, the money’s been largely spent and the schools are still awaiting transformation. Now, Christie is proposing a reduction in state aid to many urban schools under what he calls a “fairness” plan that would provide the same amount of aid per pupil—$6,599—in every district.

The challenges that face the state’s urban schools—from outdated, overcrowded buildings to widespread teacher burnout—are numerous and daunting, but most have their roots in a single recalcitrant reality. “The 2-ton elephant in every urban classroom is poverty,” says Charles P. Mitchel, associate professor and executive director of the Academy for Urban School Transformation at Seton Hall University and a former assistant commissioner of education for the state of New Jersey.

The 600,000-plus children who grow up in poverty in the Garden State start school at a distinct disadvantage compared to their wealthier peers, says Mitchel—although, he adds, “the disadvantages are in experiences, not capacity to learn.” Take, for example, the vocabulary gap: According to a well-known 2003 University of Kansas study, the children of middle- and upper-income families have, by age four, heard 30 million more words than those on welfare. Given that vocabulary is one of the strongest indicators of potential achievement, that deficit of words alone could condemn a child to a second-rate academic career.

Underprivileged kids are also less likely to come to school with an appreciation for what education can bring. “When you’re living in an area where you’re surviving day to day, keeping the value of education uppermost in your mind is hard,” notes Kara Pauline Ieva, associate professor in the Counseling in Educational Settings Program at Rowan University’s College of Education.

That environment, Ieva says, exacts a serious emotional toll. “A lot of students in the inner city are living with what we would call post-traumatic stress,” she says. When you’re worried that you may have to move again because a parent is unemployed, when your path to school takes you past drug dealers or you’ve had friends or relatives who’ve been victims of violence, it’s hard to focus on the day’s social studies lesson.

Even a cursory glance at school rankings makes it clear that the lower a community’s socioeconomic status, the more likely its schools are to appear at the bottom of the list. But there are a few exceptions, and by example, they may offer a road map to success. To a greater or lesser degree, they all share characteristics without which no urban school is likely to succeed: high expectations of students; an environment that addresses the emotional, physical and academic needs of urban children; engagement of families and the community; a culture of openness, acceptance and understanding; dedication to teachers’ professional development (to enhance teaching and combat burnout); strong leadership from the principal; and an emphasis on reading, writing and the importance of education.

None of these is easy to attain in an inner-city area, but a look at four high-achieving urban schools reveals that they are more than phrases on a checklist of wishful thinking.

Elizabeth High School, Elizabeth
2016 New Jersey Monthly Rank: 122

Stephania Gonzalez Mena has an appealing, open face and an ingratiating manner that should serve her well should she achieve the career of her dreams at the United Nations. Having received her diploma in June, Gonzalez Mena will be starting this fall at Douglass Residential College at Rutgers-New Brunswick, where she hopes to find a supportive community of female fellow students.

Community has been critical for Gonzalez Mena. She credits the support of teachers and staff for getting her through her four years at Elizabeth High. Some of that support was personal (the school nurse who delivered career advice and books about leadership as well as medical care) and some was academic (teachers who came in early or stayed late to offer tutoring and review).

“The counselors, the secretaries, even the principal were always able to step outside their respective duties to be of support when [students] had personal troubles, whether about family, friendships, or just about life,” she says.

Mentorship, notes Elizabeth High’s principal, Michael Cummings, “is the number-one thing that we’re working on all the time.” It’s important for all students, many of whom carry the emotional effects of poverty into the classroom along with books and backpacks. (More than three-quarters of Elizabeth High’s students are economically disadvantaged.)  Also important, says Cummings, is “having really high expectations of the students and convincing them that they’re capable.”  In fact, numerous studies reveal a correlation between teachers’ expectations and student performance.

Cummings describes Elizabeth High as a “choice school,” with entrance criteria for prospective students. Elizabeth High’s theme—accelerated, Advanced Placement (AP)-oriented, college-prep instruction—attracts some of the city’s highest-achieving students. Fully 100 percent of the school’s 11th- and 12th-graders took at least one AP course during the 2014-2015 school year, an achievement shared by only two other Jersey schools, Alexander Hamilton Prep in Elizabeth and McNair Academic in Jersey City (profiled below). But Cummings believes that much of what the school does can be applied to most other urban schools as well. In fact, all but one of Elizabeth’s six high schools have increased their AP offerings since the 2012-2013 school year.

Behind everything in Elizabeth High’s curriculum—the requirement that all students take AP courses as well as English, U.S. and World History and the fact that the average student takes at least eight AP courses from the 17 offered before graduating—is an overarching emphasis on reading, writing and research. Classes maximize the time students spend on all three, to which Cummings attributes the school’s “massive movement in test scores.”  In the 2014-2015 school year, for instance, nearly half of the school’s students scored above 1550 on the SATs, up from 33.7 percent in the 2012-2013 school year. Technology is important—each student is assigned a laptop at the beginning of the school year, and this year will see the introduction of an AP computer science course—but literacy remains the school’s primary focus.

This year, Elizabeth High will move into a new, 183,000-square-foot building, which will allow for a larger freshman class, increasing the overall student body from 850 to 950.  That’s a relatively small gain for a city with some 6,000 students of high school age, but could be a major advantage for those incoming students.

McNair Academic High School, Jersey City
2016 New Jersey Monthly Rank: 65

McNair Academic isn’t just a magnet school, but a magnet for Jersey City’s best and brightest. Its admissions test for entering freshmen consists of the PSAT coupled with an essay. It also takes into account a student’s prior grades, attendance, activities and teacher recommendations.

McNair sends its graduates to some of the country’s most competitive colleges and universities.  Sarbari Sarkar, class of 2016, is on her way to MIT this year.  Her classmate, Victoria Piszczek, will be studying business and finance at NYU—in Shanghai.  While most students enter McNair already motivated to succeed, teachers and administrators go out of their way to inculcate a strong work ethic in every student.  At orientation, says principal Edward Slattery, incoming freshmen are told “they’ve been accepted into a very special place, and they’re expected to contribute to and build on the foundation provided for them.”  McNair fosters what vice principal Alice Barone describes as a culture of “striving for excellence.”

Since its founding in 1976, the school’s theme has been college prep. The curriculum is as rigorous as it is broad, with 26 AP classes in every subject area, including art and music. To graduate, students must take at least one AP class and the corresponding AP test. “The very fact that we offer such challenging courses gives students the desire to strive to be in those courses,” says Barone.  All freshmen must take a creative writing course.  “Writing skills,” says Slattery, “are important across the curriculum—and for taking the AP tests.”

The school has a diverse population by design, largely reflecting the ethnic makeup of Jersey City, one of the most ethnically diverse municipalities in the country.  Students are encouraged to share information about their backgrounds, which, Slattery believes, enhances learning as well as cooperation. Students apparently agree.  “At McNair,” says Sarkar, “you’ll always find a group of people willing to accept you and help you, and that includes teachers as well as students.”

Professional development is a priority at McNair. Teachers meet for half an hour every morning to share successes, failures and challenges, and are encouraged to go above and beyond the demands of the school day to help students succeed.  Sarkar, who has always been more interested in science than the humanities, worried that she’d do poorly in the AP U.S. history class she was required to take freshman year.  But, she says, “our teachers really helped us and supported us through it, and taking it helped me develop a fondness for the humanities.”  She credits her AP biology teacher, Chumki Gupta, with helping her become “a better person” by sharing insights about her personal code of ethics.

In a school populated by academic strivers, the arts sometimes get short shrift, not from the administration, but from the students themselves.  Slattery says he and the staff are working on ways to engage students in arts classes.  Noam Fossi, who graduated in the spring and hopes to major in premed, pathology or virology at Vanderbilt University, was reluctant to take a freshman music class.  But his teacher drew him in by demonstrating how music intersected with neuroscience. That’s the kind of ingenuity that benefits students and keeps the job fresh for teachers—an academic win-win.

Science Park High School, Newark
2016 New Jersey Monthly Rank: 79

In a city where the average high school graduation rate is 67.7 percent, Science Park stands out. Not only did it have a 99 percent graduation rate last year, but, according to principal Kathleen Tierney, 92 percent of last year’s graduates went on to college, some enrolling in top-tier schools, including Harvard, Cornell, NYU, Carnegie Mellon and Duke. As its name suggests, Science Park is a magnet school specializing in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines, the only one in the city with full STEM focus  for grades 7 through 12. The school enhances its curriculum, both in the areas of STEM and the humanities, through community partnerships with nearby universities (Rutgers, Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and New Jersey Institute of Technology) and nonprofits like Students 2 Science, which affords students the opportunity to partner with professional scientists in working labs.

The school’s extensive professional development program includes faculty workshops aimed at helping teachers transform classrooms into “learning communities” in which students help shape the lessons. This in no way softens the rigor of the curriculum, which incorporates both AP courses and an International Baccalaureate (IB) program. (AP and IB offer the opportunity to take college-level courses and earn college credit.) In the 2014-2015 school year, more than 71 percent of the school’s students scored 3 or higher on AP tests, up from 58 percent in the 2012-2013 school year.  Science Park’s new facility, built in 2006, boasts a robotics-fabrication room, a media center and a computer lab. “Teachers,” says Tierney, “infuse technology in a lot of their lessons.”

Science Park, Tierney says, is dedicated to creating a “culture of care.”  Teachers stay after school to offer students extra help.  The library stays open until 4:30. Parents are required to sign a contract in which the school pledges, among other things, to provide students with a safe environment; to enhance their nutritional, physical and emotional habits; and to ensure “ongoing and impactful” communication among students, parents, teachers and staff.  For their part, parents promise to monitor students’ attendance, homework, grades and after-school screen time.  It all fits with the school’s mission, which, Tierney says, “is to prepare students who will be able to contribute to a global economy—good people capable of being productive in society.”

LEAP Academy University Charter School, Camden
2016 New Jersey Monthly Rank: 210

A visitor to Cooper Street might be excused for thinking that Camden is largely a city of safe, tree-lined streets and well-tended houses. Looking around at the six buildings that comprise LEAP (Leadership, Education, and Partnership) Academy, it’s hard to believe that this section of North Camden was once popularly known as North Vietnam. Its residents were battle scarred by poverty, violence, drug use and homelessness.

The school’s founder and board chair, Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, chose the neighborhood for what would soon be its proximity to Rutgers University, which was expanding into the area and would become affiliated with LEAP through its Community Leadership Center (also founded by Bonilla-Santiago).

Now 19 years old, LEAP serves some 1,700 children, from infancy (in its Early Learning Research Academy) through high school. At every level, its curriculum focuses on the so-called STEAM disciplines:  science, technology, engineering, the arts and math. LEAP’s mission isn’t just to end the cycle of poverty that prevails in so many urban communities but, says Bonilla-Santiago, “to put together a partnership of parents and stakeholders to solve the problems of poverty here in the city using education.”

To accomplish that goal, LEAP created a Parents Academy for School Reform that teaches caregivers how to support their children’s education.  Parents at the academy can also work toward a graduate-equivalency degree, take English as a second language and train for work in the service industries.  “We do everything to make sure that their children stay in school,” says Bonilla-Santiago.  Another incentive toward that end is a $2 million-plus endowment (from private and corporate sources) that guarantees preschoolers free tuition at Rutgers if they remain at LEAP until high school graduation.

The pipeline at LEAP, Bonilla-Santiago says, is designed to get the kids “from cradle to college, instead of cradle to prison.”  The school’s College Access Center offers individualized guidance and support in the college-admissions process, PSAT and SAT preparation, and career awareness. Students begin visiting colleges in elementary school so that they’re “already seeing the picture, understanding what it means to go to college,” says Bonilla-Santiago.  The school emphasizes to both students and parents that, for children living in poverty, college is the only avenue to success. High expectations of every student—including the expectation that they’ll go on to college—is an intrinsic part of LEAP’s mission. According to Bonilla-Santiago, since the high school opened in 2005, 100 percent of LEAP students have gone on to college, including institutions such as Brown, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania.

The demanding curriculum focuses on literacy and math, with an emphasis on the former, which is deliberately woven into all subject areas.  “Literacy is everything,” says Bonilla-Santiago, “from how to read and write to how to synthesize.”  Technology, too, is an integral part of the curriculum.  LEAP is one of the few high schools in the state to have its own fabrication laboratory, a mainstay of technologically minded colleges and universities in which students can (and do) digitally design everything from robots to water-filtration systems.  The so-called fab lab is part of a specialized STEM program for students in grades 7 through 12. Reflecting the breadth of the curriculum, 90 percent of all students graduate having taken at least one class in the arts, making LEAP number 6 in the state on that count.

Academics is only one part of the LEAP experience. LEAP has a lottery enrollment process—with 90 percent of its students coming from economically disadvantaged households.  Some of them arrive at school in the morning without having eaten; others have experienced homelessness; many live in a constant state of crisis. “They all come from fragile families,” says Bonilla-Santiago. To counteract that, LEAP offers three meals a day. Because Camden offers students little in the way of after-school enrichment or entertainment—there isn’t a movie theater in the city and only a handful of public playgrounds—the school has an extended day, scheduling extracurriculars from 4 to 7 pm, as well as tutoring, art, internships and parent programs.  A psychologist and a social worker are on staff to help students negotiate the inevitable rough patches. “Without offering children a sense of safety,” says Bonilla-Santiago, “we can’t teach them.”

Urban schools carry a burden not shared by those in wealthier communities. Like all schools, they’re expected to teach, but in order to teach, they also need to help students overcome the debilitating effects of poverty. Given what amounts to a double mission, it’s hardly surprising so many often fall short, sometimes spectacularly so. Still, some schools, including the four described here, appear to be succeeding, largely by focusing on the whole child and not just on what we traditionally think of as “the student”—a kid who comes to school primed to learn. Mitchel, for one, is hopeful that the approach can work. “If it can be done in some schools,” he says, “it can be done in all.”

Leslie Garisto Pfaff is a longtime contributor on education, health and other subjects.

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