Heard on the Tour: North Star Academy, Newark

North Star Academy students at all-school community circle

North Star Academy students at all-school community circle

Everywhere Secretary Duncan has visited on his listening tour — a Montana Indian reservation, a high school in Detroit, a middle school in West Virginia — students are saying, “Challenge me, push me, make me work, and I will do it.”

He heard the same message in Newark, N.J., one of America’s poorest cities. Many families there face so many challenges: rising unemployment, foreclosures, an overburdened social services system. One in three children lives in poverty. No more than half of the 8th grade students pass state tests. A quarter of high school seniors do not graduate.

Yet parents and students find hope in the form of a promise of a better life through education. In Newark, nowhere does that hope shine brighter than at North Star Academy. Children enter this public charter school at the 5th grade often significantly behind their state peers. Less than 35 percent of entering students are proficient in literacy and 15 percent are proficient in math. Yet over 95 percent of 7th graders — who have been in the school less than 2 full years — scored proficient or advanced in language arts literacy and math. Based on these results, North Star is the highest performing school in Newark and 2nd highest among all urban schools in New Jersey.

The secretary and those of us travelling with him observed classes, participated in the all-school “community circle,” and heard students and parents testify to the passion and commitment of the teachers and administrators at North Star. We heard how educators take the time to really know their students, and students and parents really know teachers and staff. We saw how teachers challenge students not to just learn but to make good choices — the right choices — and thereby develop their character and an ethos of service. Students talked about their teachers as their second parents — available to them at all hours, on weekends, and whenever they really need them. The passion and commitment of the North Star community has students believing that failure is not an option.

The youth of North Star understand that despite the unwavering efforts of dedicated teachers and supportive staff, the responsibility for learning, achieving and growing ultimately depends on them. These young scholars commit to a schedule that has them attending class or involved in enrichment and remediation activities far after the regular school day ends for other students in the city. And, to avoid the summer slide in academic skills, North Star students have a longer school year and a shorter summer break, with students in class for 200 days a year. Students said this helps build confidence and character and an understanding of the expectations that lie ahead: college. For the North Star student, college is not a “dream, an aspiration or a goal; it is their destiny.”

Parents in the North Star community believe fervently in their role as advocates for their children and the children of Newark. They believe in being more accountable and responsible for their children’s academic success. They embrace it and feel passionately about it. As one parent said, “the happiest day of my life was when I knew my son would be enrolled in North Star and he would have an opportunity to receive a great education.” They believe that charter schools like North Star are beacons of hope for parents and students. As one parent said “build on what works, expand it to benefit the entire public education system, and, in turn, renew and revitalize Newark.”

Todd May


  1. I’m also encouraged but not surprised at what students are saying. For 25 years, my organization has been helping teachers learn how to teach in ways that are more rigorous, more engaging and more inspiring. In fact, we were teaching 21st Century Skills 3/4 of the way through the 20th Century! What we heard from participants, though, wasn’t “Our students can’t (or won’t) do this.” It was “My principal/ superintendent/ department chair doesn’t like this. (S)he want’s me to teach the chapters and use the questions at the end. I want to do Critical Skills, but I can’t because I can’t do both- and I have to do what they want me to or I’ll lose my job.”

    We need better school and district leadership or nothing is ever going to change. I’d love to see someone assessing school leadership based on their ability to foster good teaching, particularly if there is a plan in place to assess teachers based on student achievement.

  2. I am encouraged to hear about programs like North Star that are really working to give kids a real education. My concern is that this is a piecemeal approach to the whole problem, since most kids (in Newark, for example) do not have the opportunity to go to such a school.
    One aspect that I believe needs more consideration is HOW such schools are run. A lot has been said about unqualified, ineffective teachers, but I have not heard much about how local school boards and the administrators they hire run the schools. These are the people that determine which teachers are hired and retained, curriculum, disciplinary procedures, and just about everything else that goes on in a school. As a teacher, I know how much a building principal can affect my effectiveness in the classroom. One of the main reasons that some charters schools work so well is that they do not have to adhere to this system. If we could find a way to run schools better in the first place, I think that our public education system would improve for ALL children. Establishing national curriculum standards could be a good first step. Improving the training and selection of school administrators should also be examined. I know that in my state (New York), anyone with a teaching degree and two years of experience can take 30 credit hours worth of courses and become an administrator. These people often roam from district to district every few years, wreaking havoc along the way. There must be a better way to run our schools!

  3. Mr. Duncan, true education reform will and must take place in the classroom. Therefore, we must establish national standards that would aid the states and local school districts in recruiting, maintaining, and sustaining quality teachers who can find that balance between the WHO I teach, the WHAT I teach and the HOW I teach.There just isn’t any accountability in the teaching profession. Teacher’s contracts and evaluations are in dire need of re-drafting. Quality teachers, it appears, are not wanted in the school system.Superintendents,union leaders, principals and colleagues bark against those who are not afraid to make the demands needed for teaching and learning.
    Mr.Duncan, I would like your administration to focus more on teacher quality and accountability issues and less on experimental projects… in the long run these projects are ineffective and costless to the taxpayers.
    If we are going to perserve democracy, we MUST Produce generations of GREAT THINKERS, therefore, we have no choice but to teach critical reading, critical writing, and critical thinking across the curriculum.Its basic… science teachers train students to think, read and write like scientists, ELA teachers, train students to think like writers, literary critics; social studies teachers, teach students to think like social scientists using authentic tools that are used in the real world.
    Who experimented with your learning, Sir?
    Let us work together to put the TEETH in NCLB Act!It
    brought the conditions of the US education to light.

    Regina McClay,J.D.

  4. I am encouraged by what I am seeing come out of Sec. Duncan’s office. I am a special education teacher living in the Atlanta metro area. I would be very interested to know if the listening tour comes anywhere near the Atlanta area.

    I am encouraged that Sec. Duncan wants to look at NCLB, making it more workable and less of a burden. The area I am specifically concerned about is the requirement that all students be assessed on grade level by 2013-2014 school year. This is quite a mandate for regular education students. For some students with disablities this seems like an unsurmountable obstacle to climb even with accommodations and modifications. I would be very interested to know what Sec. Duncan thinks about this part of the legislation. How realistic is this? How can we work to make the idea behind the legislation workable?

    I’m not really responding to the specifics of what you wrote – and for that I apologize. I could not find a place to post these comments elsewhere. Perhaps you can help me figure out the maze.

    Wanda B.

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