Great Oaks Legacy Charter Schools and AmeriCorps team up for success

Now in the sixth year of their partnership with AmeriCorps, Great Oaks Legacy Charter School recruits and hires about 120 tutors a year to work with students in middle and high school. Credits: GOLCS
Former AmericCorps tutor Michelle Picard at last month's Design Day Challenge Credits: GOLCS
GOLCS Dean of students Yemi Olorunnipa, a former AmeriCorps tutor, coaching the soccer team Credits: GOLCS
Great Oaks operates five schools in Newark—Legacy Elementary School, Legacy Middle School, Downtown Elementary School, Downtown Middle School and Downtown High School Credits: GOLCS

Great Oaks Legacy Charter School is proving what effective collaboration and committed partnerships can do, one student at a time.

Students attending the network of five Newark charter schools have consistently ranked in the top eight percent of any public school in the state for math growth.

In addition, 11th graders at GOLCS outperformed 90 percent and 84 percent of all students across New Jersey in 2015-2016 in Math and English/Language Arts, while 100 percent of GOLCS's first high school senior class was admitted to college, with over $2 million awarded in first-year scholarships.

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Results like these don't happen overnight but are due in large part to the AmeriCorps Great Oaks Tutor Corps, a diverse group of recent college graduates who offer students at the school more than 10 hours of instruction per week in a variety of subjects.

Now in the sixth year of their partnership with AmeriCorps, GOLCS recruits and hires about 120 tutors a year to work with students in middle and high school.

Great Oaks operates five schools in Newark—Legacy Elementary School, Legacy Middle School, Downtown Elementary School, Downtown Middle School and Downtown High School—and three more Great Oaks schools in New York, Wilmington, DE, and Bridgeport, CT.

During the school's first five years, tutors performed more than 85,000 hours of tutoring and helped make more than 36,000 phone calls home in order to create and maintain a partnership with parents.

GOLCS has recruited more than 350 college graduates to live in Newark and perform a year of service as full-time tutors since 2011, with funding provided by AmeriCorps for the first four years of the partnership.

Since then, national grants have been obtained through GOLCS applications with out-of-state Great Oaks sister schools.

AmeriCorps—a public service organization funded by the federal government-- has developed thousands of leaders through national service since 1994, including 1,300 new educators reaching over 210,000 students in New Jersey.

After their year of service, more than a third of AmeriCorps tutors stay in Newark to work in schools and nonprofits throughout the city, with Great Oaks offering multiple pathways to certification for tutors who wish to become high-performing teachers.

In exchange for serving as an AmeriCorps Great Oaks Tutor Corps member, tutors receive fully furnished housing with utilities at Teachers Village—a new mixed-use community in downtown Newark—a living stipend, health insurance, a Segal Education Award after completing their service hours and the opportunity to work in the education field.

To ensure tutors are prepared to work with students, tutors begin their service in August by participating in intensive pre-service training. In addition, tutors attend Tutorpalooza—a convening of all tutors across our network to participate in professional development, networking and social gatherings.

GOLCS Executive Director Jared Taillefer, an AmericCorps alumnus, said the school focuses on creating a strong sense of community and establishing high expectations while still meeting students on their individual academic levels.

And for the last five years, the hard work has paid off.

“There's proof that a lot of what we’re doing works,” Taillefer said, noting that much of this success is due to the school’s tutor corps. “The program is driving change in education in Newark."

Taillefer is concerned about the tutoring program that is now under threat by the Trump administration. The president's proposed budget reveals the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS)—the agency that runs AmeriCorps—would be zeroed out next year, although CNCS accounted for just .03 percent of the federal budget last fiscal year.

“This would be millions of dollars being taken away and jobs lost,” Taillefer said. “It’s such a small part of the budget but it has a huge impact on kids.”

In written testimony sent in March to the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies regarding FY 2018 funding for CNCS, Taillefer urged the Subcommittee to continue its investment in national service programs by providing at least $1.1 billion in funding for CNCS, which is consistent with FY16 funding levels. 

“AmeriCorps’ National Direct grant to the Great Oaks Foundation, the supporting organization to Great Oaks Legacy Charter School in Newark, NJ, has allowed us to expand our Tutor Corps program to accommodate our growing school, serving more than 1,300 primarily low-income students in the Newark community,” he wrote.

Taillefer noted that GOLCS students come to the school performing several years below grade level, with AmeriCorps tutors helping them achieve academic progress.

 “Our Tutor Corps program provides our middle and high school students with two hours of daily tutoring, essential to helping them reach academic proficiency and to reaching our mission of preparing all of our students for success in a four-year college or university,” he said.

GOLCS Chief People Officer Michelle Diaz said the program serves as a pipeline for those seeking a pathway to a career in education and that defunding the program would hurt both teachers and students.

“This would negatively impact future teachers and would definitely impact being able to recruit talent,” Diaz said. “We have a process that attracts the best and the brightest to our program because of AmericCorps. It’s good for other schools and good for the city.”

Michelle Picard, a former AmeriCorps tutor and now a middle school teacher at GOLCS, worked with approximately seven students last year through the program, as well as offering in-class support.

“I saw reading levels go up significantly,” she said. “Scores went up a few grade levels.”

Picard, who lived at Teacher Village during her tenure as a tutor, said she wasn’t sure what to expect when she arrived in Newark but that she ended up securing a job at the school.

“I’m from Boston,” she said. “I had no idea what to expect. There are a lot of relationships that you build.”

Imani Sakyi, a GOLCS graduate and Rutgers-Newark freshman, said the tutoring program at the school changed the trajectory of her life.

AmeriCorps tutors worked with Sakyi throughout middle school and high school and said the one-on-one support was crucial to her success.

“Being that I was very shy, having tutoring was very helpful for me,” she said. “To the tutors, it wasn’t just a job. They actually care about you, they actually want you to succeed. They are like the glue of the school—they hold it all together.”

Sakyi plans on going to dental school after she graduates and credits the tutoring program for helping her realize her goals.

“My tutors made me write down three goals at the beginning of the year in 9th grade," she said. "I wrote down that I wanted to get into ten colleges and get a 3.0 GPA. I've surpassed those goals."

GOLCS Dean of students Yemi Olorunnipa, a former AmeriCorps tutor, said staying on at the school has allowed him to see the growth and progress of his former students.

“One of the benefits of staying on is that you do see students who struggled with grades and behavior, but by the end of year they had created really good study habits,” he said. “A lot of it is planting seeds. Teachers really take ownership of each of the students they’re assigned to and act as academic coaches and mentors. As Dean, I now have the benefit of seeing the fruits of those efforts of years past.”

Taillefer noted the life-changing impact of the tutoring program.

“Students will always remark on the impact of the program and that tutors really understood their academic needs,” he said.

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