Newark, NJ—Hundreds of elementary school students file into the brightly-lit auditorium at Newark’s Robert Treat Academy Charter School, their hunter green uniforms crisp, the look on their faces expectant and serious. It is time for morning assembly.
The gathering of students, teachers and Principal Theresa Adubato each morning is a ritual that has become part of the school’s legacy, representative of its mission of guiding students on the path to living fulfilling, successful lives.
The assembly is led by students and built around values of kindness, hard work and making positive choices.
Each morning, students recite the school’s mission—and its message lives on long after they graduate.
“Those morning assemblies inspired me,” said RTA alumnus Kathleen Morales, a 2007 graduate. “I still remember what we said every single morning—'work hard, be the best you can be, be kind to one another and most importantly, make good choices'."
Morales, who now lives in San Francisco and is quickly working her way up the corporate ladder in the underwriting industry, comes from a rough and economically-disadvantaged background.
Her mother, a single parent, was a Puerto Rican immigrant who had her and her twin sister when she was just 16, with the young mother struggling to pay the bills while she raised her daughters.
Morales recalls the many times she and her sister were picked up by RTA faculty members when they were unable to get to school or school-related events.
“They picked us up when we couldn’t get to school in the middle of a snowstorm,” she said. “My mom had to work to pay the bills, and Ms. Adubato made sure to pick us up and made sure we were at events. We never felt ashamed of our background because Ms. Adubato made sure we didn’t. She helped us turn a bad thing into a good thing. I didn’t get that white picket fence, those two parents and access to the expensive education but RTA stepped in,” Morales said. “Now I live a very blessed life. I have a good, stable job, a nice apartment and I don’t have to live paycheck to paycheck. I wouldn’t be where I am today without RTA.”
Morales represents the hundreds of graduates who are living the legacy that founder Stephen N. Adubato set out to create.
Robert Treat Academy was founded two decades ago by Adubato, an urban educator and lifelong Newark resident who believed that children in inner-city school districts were not being served by the existing public school system.
With the creation of one of Newark’s first charter school, Adubato set out to prove that urban minority children could be successful students if given the required tools by people who believed in their ability to achieve academic excellence.
Adubato is also the founder and former executive director of The North Ward Center, a private, nonprofit social service agency that has been involved in neighborhood stabilization efforts through a series of programs for close to five decades.
In 1996, the state legislature passed the New Jersey Charter School Program Act making it possible for citizen groups to apply for a charter—a contract with the State of New Jersey—to operate a public school, and Robert Treat Academy's charter was approved the following year as part of the first group of New Jersey charter schools.
Two classes each of kindergarten and first grade students were selected through a lottery and in September 1997, RTA became the first charter school in the state to open its doors.
During its first eight years, RTA added one grade annually and in 2005 graduated its first class of students.
In 2009, the RTA expanded by adding a second campus in Newark's Central Ward and in 2014, the North Ward Campus was designated as the Stephen N. Adubato (SNA) Campus.
RTA currently has 675 students across its two campuses.
Principal Adubato has led the school’s administrative team since 2010 and reflected back on her pioneering father.
“At the time, not many people in the community knew what a charter school was,” she said. “When the idea of opening a charter school was put before our founder Stephen N. Adubato, he jumped at the idea. As a career educator in the city of Newark, he understands first-hand the impact education has on the lives of children and the community. The impetus for opening a charter was to facilitate a proving ground for his personal philosophy on education. He believes that if you provide children with a clean and safe learning environment, establish high academic standards, provide safety nets, and hire staff who share in that belief, students will succeed and flourish. Our founder had the belief that Robert Treat would be a good school.”
The school’s 11-month school year begins in August and ends in June, with a seven-hour school day and school on Saturdays.
The school offers students an opportunity to take remedial and enrichment courses, including language enrichment, math, language arts, reading recovery, guided reading, tutoring, and homework assistance.
“Although the community in general did not know what a charter school was, they took a leap of faith with our founder because they trusted and believed in him,” Theresa Adubato said. “In 1997, the Academy opened with grades Kindergarten and First. It was important the school build its own unique culture, slowly and purposefully. Parental participation and community input is an important part of our school culture.”
In 2008, Robert Treat Academy was selected as a National Blue Ribbon School based on the academic excellence its students—one of only 15 charter schools selected for the honor that year.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Education chose RTA as one of only eight schools to feature on its website as a Model School.
In 2014, RTA was named a Reward School for the third consecutive year—the only charter school in the state to be named a Reward School for three consecutive years.
Reward Schools are schools in which proficiency levels for every category of students is in the top 10 percent of the state and overall proficiency is greater than 90 percent.
“The students of the Academy have a long history of academic success on state mandated testing,” Adubato said. “There is no magic behind what we do. We have a very rigorous curriculum, we have numerous technology supports for students and teachers, we have strong parental support, a dedicated staff, and we have students who are taught from an early age the value of education. Anecdotally I would say all those factors in conjunction with a longer day, a longer school year and Saturday classes have resulted in student success. The basic belief we share as a school community is the simple notion that schools exists to educate children."
One of the initiatives that has helped propel students forward is the school’s high school placement program, in which RTA works with more than fifty boarding, private day and public schools each year.
For a full day in October, schools throughout New Jersey and across the country visit the school to conduct interviews with students.
RTA alumni have been accepted to some of the country’s most prestigious boarding schools including Choate-Rosemary Hall, Phillips Academy Exeter, Phillips Andover Academy, The Lawrenceville School, St. Paul’s, and Deerfield and have been offered more than $30 million dollars in scholarships and financial aid.
The advent of the school’s program was borne out of a desire to ensure that RTA graduates are given the best options for secondary school.
“In 2003, we found ourselves faced with a dilemma,” Adubato said, noting that two years later the school would be graduating its first class. “There was the general consensus that these hard working and successful students should be given a choice about where to attend high school.”
Adubato said the school made contact with local parochial, private and boarding schools, and in September 2005, RTA hosted its first annual Interview Day.
“Nearly 50 schools converged on the Academy and conducted hundreds of interviews with our students and their parents,” Adubato said. “The most difficult part of that process was convincing parents whose children received acceptances with full scholarships to boarding schools to let them go. The Academy owes a debt of gratitude to those selfless and courageous parents. They opened the door for generations of students.”
While it is the acceptances from private day and boarding schools that get the most attention, Adubato said, the most important aspect of the program is finding the school that best fits a student’s academic, social and emotional needs.
“That is the true success of our high school placement program,” she said.
RTA parent and board president Tahira Strand said the school has set a high bar for schools that have come after it.
“I believe that RTA has set standards for other charters,” Strand said. “Our standards at RTA are set very high as far as behavior, appearance, attitude and wanting to learn. The students are groomed as soon as they come through the doors, so as they get older they know what is expected of them. This has given them a foundation and they will carry these traits with them as they go on to becoming young adults. Everywhere our students go outside of school, they are praised by others as being very intelligent and well-behaved.”
Strand’s two older daughters are graduates of RTA, while her youngest daughter is graduating this year and will be attending the prestigious St. Paul’s boarding school in New Hampshire on a full scholarship.
“RTA is one of the schools that stands out because we produce cream of the crop students,” she said. “We have acquired many connections with various institutions. I feel that my children have gained many opportunities. Robert Treat Academy has taught my daughters to have respect for oneself and others, to be kind and to reach back and give some of their time to their community.”
Morales, who visits the school each time she returns to Newark and has participated in RTA's Alumni Work Force program—where former students come to work at the school during their breaks and to share their stories with students—said RTA will always be home to her.
“In terms of RTA, that’s essentially family,” she said. “Having a foundation, a family that supports you is crucial. We didn’t have that, but we had RTA. I feel like I was raised in RTA.”
Adubato said for many students, RTA has become their home away from home.
“Our parting message on the day they graduate is ‘you will always have a home at Robert Treat and we will always be here if you should need us,’” she said, noting that students and parents, both past and present, continue to pay homage to Stephen Adubato, fondly referred to by many as ‘Big Steve.’
“They and their parents know there would be no Robert Treat Academy if not for him,” Adubato said. “Of all of his accomplishments it is the success of the students of the Academy he is most proud of. He thought of charter schools as a ‘social experiment,’ where what was learned from these experiments could be shared with traditional public schools and replicated for the greater good. His vision for a good school has resulted in changing the course of lives. Our founder’s legacy is in each and every student who has been educated at the Academy.”