New Jersey: Educating Today’s Students to Be Tomorrow’s Leaders

No one demonstrated the theme of the New Jersey Charter Schools Conference April 7-8 better than A’Dorian Murray-Thomas, right, a sophomore honors student at Swarthmore College and graduate of KIPP’s TEAM Academy Charter School.  Born and raised in Newark, this young leader is on a mission.  Besides creating a program to offer free SAT and Self-Empowerment Programs for Newark high school students and a support organization for girls and teens who lost a parent to homicide, she spends her time as a tutor and mentor for students at her former charter middle school, as a career peer advisor at Swarthmore, and coordinator of community outreach for Merit Preparatory Charter School.  “We used to say it took a village to raise a child,” she told conference attendees.  “We need people to make that stronger—to be bold and steadfast in pursuit of quality education.  Thank you for being part of our new village to open new doors for our youth.”   You go, A’Dorian!

NJ charter schools:  closing the achievement gap

New Jersey charter schools are making strong academic gains against significant odds.  According to NJ Charter Schools Association CEO and President Carolos Pérez (right of me below), the state’s data shows that since 2010, charters have closed the achievement gap between Black and Hispanic students and their Caucasian and Asian peers  by more than 30% in math and 13% in language arts!  This is happening in a charter school community consisting of 84% African American and Latino students and 71% economically disadvantaged students.   I was surprised to learn that New Jersey’s 87 charter schools (33,000 students) serve significantly more African American students than other public schools and significantly fewer Caucasian students.  85% of charter school students attend schools in just six large cities, and 20,000 students are on waiting lists.   I love the charter school banners that the students made, proudly illustrating the uniqueness of each (see end of post).

The Power of Chartering

There is great opportunity to grow chartering in New Jersey.  But as the data improves every year, so does the anti-chartering rhetoric, says Pérez.  “The more we prove the impossible, the greater the challenges we face,” he says.  “Charter schools have been dependent on political leaders like Mayor Bloomberg in NYC and Arne Duncan in Chicago.  We will get a new governor in NJ in three years.  We’re not ready to handle political volatility.  We must embrace the power we have—we need our own power,” he told attendees.  “We are 2% of kids in public education in NJ—we are tiny.  We spent 0 dollars on political campaigns last year.  The (teachers union) spent $11 million.  We can never spend more—we must combine our efforts and give the best of what we have from our 2%!”

Amen, Carlos!

Education Reform Advocate and conference keynote speaker Derrell Bradford (left, above) picked up the theme.  Charter schools are studies in power, he said:

Power of People:  When a single teacher took an interest in Derrell in elementary school, “I was born on that day.  I won the lottery in school and life.”  Chartering presents the chance for a low-income child to have a great teacher he or she might not otherwise see.

Power of Picking School:   Chartering unlocks the power of choosing.  The power to choose is Awesome.  “Picking is the practice of freedom” according to educator Howard Fuller.

Power of Policy:   Charters come from public policy. They can be undone.  We must stay vigilant.  The recent firestorm in NYC would have happened four years ago if Mayor Bloomberg hadn’t extended his term.

Power of Politics:  There were 10,000 charter school advocates on the statehouse steps in Albany, and strong new legislation passed.  Yes, grassroots support is necessary, but not enough.   All that fundraising for the governor and political efforts over many years were also a big part of that success.  Remember, our gains are temporary.  We just got ten years of legislation done in New York, but it phases out in three years.  What will survive are the things the opponents “let go.”  You are the best messengers in this work!

Amen, Derrell!

Many Thanks to Office Depot and Hertz Furniture!

I truly enjoyed spending time presenting on two conference panels and visiting with attendees at the booth of my lead sponsor, Office Depot.  We all know Office Depot as a partner provider of paper and pens to our public schools.  But this was different.  Tom Childers, Senior Faculty and Certified Consultant of The Common Core Institute (far right), joined the Office Depot Team in offering his support services to New Jersey charter schools.  The Common Core Institute has partnered with Office Depot to provide services to charter schools.  I appreciated the vibrant conversations at the booth as charter school leaders learned more about these services, and as the Office Depot team learned more about New Jersey charter schools.  The OD commitment to the charter sector is deep and growing.  I am grateful to them for distributing my book, Zero Chance of Passage:  The Pioneering Charter School Story to attendees of my panel session and at the booth.

And what a joy to also spend time at the booth of Hertz Furniture-New Jersey, the national school furniture experts, in their home state of New Jersey.  I had the honor of presenting the pioneering charter school story to their sales team in December, and once again they kindly provided Zero Chance of Passage to conference attendees.  

Many thanks to my New Jersey conference sponsors, Office Depot and Hertz Furniture.  It is an honor to work with organizations so committed to the success of chartering!