Remarkable Newarkers is a series profiling people who live and/or work in Newark who are making a positive contribution to the city.
Michele Mason's impact on education is felt throughout the city
When Mason took over as head of the Newark Charter School Fund, she stepped right into the middle of a power struggle between supporters allied with the city's traditional district schools and reformers standing with the fast-growing public charter school sector.
Fast forward two years, there is growing peace between the two opposing sides. Mason was one of the key players - along with former Newark Schools Superintendent Chris Cerf and Mayor Ras Baraka - to make that détente happen on behalf of Newark's children.
"We are in a good place today. Both sectors work more cooperatively than before-there's no us versus them," Mason said. "All of us share the vision that every child in Newark should have access to great schools, mentors, and teachers in their neighborhoods. My role is to ensure high-quality charter schools are an integral part of that vision for thousands of parents and their children across the city."
Mason was instrumental in forming the last two slates of school board candidates with Baraka and North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr. that ran under the unity ticket. Though candidates had differing views on charter schools, they ran together under the banner that all children in Newark deserve to attend a great school.
Baraka, who called for a charter school moratorium during his mayoral campaign in 2014, no longer aims his fiery rhetoric at charter schools.
"I have a positive relationship with the mayor," Mason said. "I share his concerns for the need to improve quality at schools across our city. He wants residents to be able to move into neighborhoods where their children can attend great schools. I want that, too. And I believe he understands in order for us to make this a reality for all families both sectors must work together."
Mason, who lives in Newark, is a New Jersey native who has spent her career in education. She previously served as deputy director of JerseyCAN, a nonprofit organization that connects education leaders with the information they need to enact policies that will make great schools available to all New Jersey children.
She has also worked for KIPP Academy in the Bronx and Uncommon Schools North Star Academy in Newark and Teach for America - New Jersey. She serves on the boards of the
Newark Education Trust, New Jersey Charter School Association, and NJPAC'S subcommittee on Arts & Education.
In Newark, Mason has worked behind the scenes to ensure collaboration between district and charter schools. One such effort is a collaboration between Uncommon Schools North Star Academy and the district to share best teaching practices with district teachers.
"I believe this collaborative approach is a genuine one," Mason said. "I want to see more cross-sector partnerships, like this one, that focuses on student success so we use it as a model and scale it up across the city."
When former Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson rolled out a controversial universal enrollment system that allows parents to apply to all district schools and most of the charters with one enrollment application, it was met with lots of challenges and skepticism. Although Mason was not working in Newark during the rollout, over the last two years, she has focused her efforts on improving the system. Today, parents can indicate neighborhood and sibling preferences as well as access a family support portal online.
"We definitely had some challenges when the city launched universal enrollment, but it's a lot better now," Mason said. "I feel like we're leveling the playing field. Now it's much easier for parents to navigate the entire public education system with just one application."
Critics of charters complain that they do not enroll enough special education students, but Mason said the number of special education students has increased in charter schools overall as a result of universal enrollment.
Mason's impact can also be felt among the parents. She has worked to ensure charter parents have a voice in the ongoing debate over education.
"I find most parents aren't overly concerned about whether their child attends a charter, district or magnet school, they simply want the best school for their kid," Mason said. "That's why I'm so determined to give Newark parents access to quality educational options so they can determine the right fit for their child. After all, they are just as much a partner in the educational journey of their children as we are."