Twenty years ago, 72 students entered an old bank building in downtown Newark, becoming the pioneering class of North Star Academy Charter School, a school that has gone on to prove that low income students from Newark can achieve at the highest levels.
Along the way, North Star also showed that a single, successful school can replicate and provide a high-quality education for thousands of students.
Today, North Star Academy is the largest charter school in New Jersey, serving over 5,000 students in Newark in grades K through 12th. About 84 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced price lunch and 98 percent are black or Latino. North Star Academy is part of Uncommon Schools, whose mission is to ensure students enter into, succeed in and graduate from college.
The students consistently outscore the state’s most affluent communities such as Verona, Montclair and South Orange.
But the most important marker of success is how many of its students are on track to graduate from not just high school--but from college. Nationally, about 58 percent of students coming from households in the highest income quartile graduate from college. At the lowest income quartile, fewer than 10 percent of kids graduate from college.
But Uncommon Schools is reversing that achievement gap by significant amounts. Today, eight in 10 Uncommon Schools alumni are on track to graduate from college within six years of high school graduation – one of the highest rates in the country.
Illustrating the inherent public good that high-achieving charter schools can provide in cities like Newark, in the 2014-15 school year, Uncommon Schools entered into a groundbreaking partnership with Newark Public Schools (NPS). In that year, North Star took over the management of Alexander Street School, which was among the lowest performing in the state. It was Uncommon’s first turnaround attempt.
At the end of the first year, students who previously couldn’t read or write or do math on grade level were now outscoring the students in the wealthiest suburbs.
Only three years after beginning its turnaround, North Star Alexander outperformed 92 percent of schools statewide in math and 86 percent of schools in English language arts.
Those numbers, of course, are tied to real children, whose course in history is changed dramatically because they attend a North Star school.
“I felt that North Star taking over Alexander was a blessing," said Brandy Farewell, whose son attended Alexander when it was operated by Newark Public Schools. "It was like our family received a second chance."
Initially Farewell was apprehensive because she didn’t know how her son would fare given he was so far behind.
“But thank God, North Star was patient and worked with him every step of the way," Farewell said. "I immediately noticed my son being happy about what he learned at school.”
In fact, the Alexander turnaround led to more than just student achievement for those students. When Superintendent Chris Cerf visited, he declared he wanted to “bottle” what he saw as some of North Star’s most effective techniques so that they could be implemented in the district.
“It's not just the outlier results, it is the ability to scale excellence. And that’s what this organization (Uncommon) does. As I understand their methodology, if some teacher in Rochester is getting results in Algebra 1, they flock to that classroom and figure out what's going on, try to package it, replicate it, and teach it to teachers,” the superintendent said.
That launched an ongoing partnership that has involved hundreds of Newark Public School teachers, principals and vice principals collaborating with Uncommon educators regularly on professional development, focusing in particular on early literacy skills.
“I hope we see this as a new model for a way to learn from one another,” Cerf said at a recent professional development event with both NPS and Uncommon teachers. “ We all have a lot to teach as well. The mutuality of that, the security of being able to learn from each other, it's inspiring to me.”