Randolph, New Jersey high school senior Seth Mitchell had an idea. What would happen if he and several of his friends from their affluent suburban community co-wrote a play with students from the Camden Street Elementary School in Newark, New Jersey? Seth pitched his idea to the Randolph High School Principal, and so began a chain of events that culminated in two performances that fundamentally changed both schools and many of the students who attend them.
Randolph and Newark have many significant dissimilarities, reflected in the public school districts that serve each community. Newark and Randolph students learned, much to their mutual surprise, that their common characteristics of perseverance, passion, and commitment were much more powerful than their surface differences of race and birth circumstances.
The process began with all the expected permission elements firmly established in both districts, and each week for more than four months, buses from one district transported students and staff to the other. The trip between Randolph and Newark, about 28 miles, was made dozens of times and anticipation about the planned performances began to build with each trip.
The original idea was the product of a partnership between two public school districts and the NY Metro chapter of a non-profit organization called Hope Worldwide, led by one student who was determined to make a difference. Seth Mitchell enlisted the aid of several equally impassioned classmates, and they found elementary school colleagues just as eager to create something unique.
Students at both schools developed a play that has as its central focus the themes of partnership and respect. The relationships they established were reflected in the final product, and also served to amplify the foundational belief of each building principal. Samuel Garrison at Camden Street Elementary and Debbie Iosso at Randolph High School both credit strong relationships as the key to the success of the play and the climate at their schools.
Every school leader is concerned with improving student performance and enhancing student outcomes, typically by developing and delivering a combination of professional development for teachers and targeted test prep for students. Many of the educators involved in the Randolph/Newark partnership, however, have come to believe that something quite unusual and transformative has happened in both places.
What began as a chance for students to learn from and about one another turned into something much more powerful, something that has replication possibilities for any districts interested in something unique. An investment in the arts, one of those curricular areas that typically fall outside of the standard view on what constitutes core subjects, may provide more benefits to student achievement than a more conventional approach and a more narrow focus.
The evidence for such a seemingly counterintuitive thought was written all over the faces of students and audience members lucky enough to witness the magic that about 50 children from Newark and Randolph created in late May in their schools. As the superintendent in Randolph, what I witnessed was nothing short of miraculous.
I witnessed students who originally thought they were very different from one another but now know otherwise.
They know otherwise because they co-wrote and mutually performed a two-act play that celebrated the values of hard work and academic discipline.
They know otherwise because they shared hundreds of hours together in both schools and both communities as they grew to appreciate one another for their similarities rather than distrust each other because of their differences.
They know otherwise because Randolph’s Option II Coordinator, Kerry Eberhardt, Camden Street’s sole Music Teacher Latoya Green, and Randolph senior Seth Mitchell would not allow the project to fail.
They know otherwise because two great educators, Camden Street Elementary Principal Samuel Garrison and Randolph High School Principal Debbie Iosso allowed two groups of students to learn all about each other in a creative process that changed everyone’s lives.
They know otherwise because their performances brought down the house; twice.
After more than thirty years in public education, I have rarely seen anything with more power to transform two places than the process that created a simple play entitled Ramden Dreams. There were few audience members who were not moved to tears at the sight of about 50 kids from Newark and Randolph who grew to love each other by celebrating their accomplishments on their school stages. I am very grateful to say that I was one of those audience members.
The next time I am party to a conversation about the Common Core or student achievement, I plan to tell the story of Seth Mitchell and his idea. An investment in the arts will forever be part of my foundational beliefs about student achievement, even if the arts are not so “common” and not technically in a more conventional view of the “core.”
David M. Browne, Randolph Superintendent of Schools
June 3, 2014