The dominant theme of Richard Whitmire’s book The Founders is that the top quintile of public charter school operators are remarkably open to collaboration with traditional and alternative school leaders.
A prime example of his thesis is the creation of North Star Academy in Newark, New Jersey, one of the state’s first charter schools.
In 1995, the New Jersey legislature passed the state’s charter law, a compromise, Whitmire says, between Democrats who wanted more education money and Republicans who wanted a voucher program. Shortly after the passage of the bill, a former journalist named Norman Atkins came to town.
Newark and School Choice
The story of the little school he built demonstrates that top charter networks—those committed to equity, continuous improvement, and collaboration—are the ones that can scale up to meet parents’ increasing demand for high-quality public schools.
The story of North Star Academy is the story of Newark’s expanding landscape of school choice. When Atkins first arrived in Newark the traditional public school district was in disarray, just taken over by the state after decades of corruption and fruitless attempts to improve student outcomes.
In 1993, for example, the Star-Ledger describes a state report that concluded that:
Children in Newark public schools are victimized by school and district leaders who force them to endure degrading school environments that virtually ensure academic failure.
The Two Pillars of North Star
Atkins, Whitmire writes, knew he needed a partner. Educators in the city referred him to a teacher named Jamey Verrilli who was intensely involved in the social justice movement. Atkins “was driven by academics” and Verrilli was driven by a strong sense of community. “It was a nice marriage,” Verrilli told Whitmire. “We put the two together and those were the two pillars of North Star.”
Why the name “North Star”? Atkins explained that he and Verrilli were working with a group of parents who picked the name because “the North Star was how the slaves found their way to freedom, and it was also the name of Frederick Douglass’s newspaper.”
Atkins and Verrilli started looking for ideas and turned to other successful charter operators like Dave Levin of KIPP, as well as other leaders of alternative schools where enrollment leaned towards children who were at least several years behind grade level in reading and math. “We designed a curriculum,” said Verrilli, “that was going to meet their needs.”
North Star, now part of the Uncommon Schools nonprofit network, opened its doors in 1997 to 72 students in fifth and sixth grade. Today it serves over 4,000 students at multiple sites. A recent expansion approved by the New Jersey Department of Education will scale the network’s reach to 6,650 students in Newark, about 12 percent of total district enrollment.
For a sense of North Star’s success, see this analysis from The 74 which delves into recent student outcomes and concludes that “in just a single year [in Newark] Uncommon was able to erase years of education malpractice.”
North Star Isn’t the Only One Shining
North Star is not the only actor in the reinvented school system of Newark, although its story is the focus of Whitmire’s narrative. KIPP New Jersey, led by Ryan Hill, has received approval for expansion and will eventually serve as many as 9,000 students.
Former superintendent Cami Anderson initiated an equitable universal enrollment program that offers choice to all parents from a menu of traditional and charter schools.
Current superintendent Chris Cerf has won accolades for smoothing ruffled feathers, promoting civil discourse, and forging ties with Newark’s theatrical mayor Ras Baraka.
However, it’s the parents of Newark who are the true change agents. Whitmire’s list of qualities of exceptional charter operators is an apt description of Newark’s families.
During a recent school enrollment period, 25 percent of parents ranked North Star first and 17 percent ranked KIPP first. They want academic excellence for their children and don’t seem to care about systems of governance. While the pace of change is never fast enough, Newark’s educational landscape is changing.
Norman Atkins is one of the founders, but it is families of Newark who will be the finishers.