Heard on the Tour: North Star Academy, Newark

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North Star Academy students at all-school community circle

North Star Academy students at all-school community circle

Everywhere Secretary Duncan has visited on his listening tour — a Montana Indian reservation, a high school in Detroit, a middle school in West Virginia — students are saying, “Challenge me, push me, make me work, and I will do it.”

He heard the same message in Newark, N.J., one of America’s poorest cities. Many families there face so many challenges: rising unemployment, foreclosures, an overburdened social services system. One in three children lives in poverty. No more than half of the 8th grade students pass state tests. A quarter of high school seniors do not graduate.

Yet parents and students find hope in the form of a promise of a better life through education. In Newark, nowhere does that hope shine brighter than at North Star Academy. Children enter this public charter school at the 5th grade often significantly behind their state peers. Less than 35 percent of entering students are proficient in literacy and 15 percent are proficient in math. Yet over 95 percent of 7th graders — who have been in the school less than 2 full years — scored proficient or advanced in language arts literacy and math. Based on these results, North Star is the highest performing school in Newark and 2nd highest among all urban schools in New Jersey.

The secretary and those of us travelling with him observed classes, participated in the all-school “community circle,” and heard students and parents testify to the passion and commitment of the teachers and administrators at North Star. We heard how educators take the time to really know their students, and students and parents really know teachers and staff. We saw how teachers challenge students not to just learn but to make good choices — the right choices — and thereby develop their character and an ethos of service. Students talked about their teachers as their second parents — available to them at all hours, on weekends, and whenever they really need them. The passion and commitment of the North Star community has students believing that failure is not an option.

The youth of North Star understand that despite the unwavering efforts of dedicated teachers and supportive staff, the responsibility for learning, achieving and growing ultimately depends on them. These young scholars commit to a schedule that has them attending class or involved in enrichment and remediation activities far after the regular school day ends for other students in the city. And, to avoid the summer slide in academic skills, North Star students have a longer school year and a shorter summer break, with students in class for 200 days a year. Students said this helps build confidence and character and an understanding of the expectations that lie ahead: college. For the North Star student, college is not a “dream, an aspiration or a goal; it is their destiny.”

Parents in the North Star community believe fervently in their role as advocates for their children and the children of Newark. They believe in being more accountable and responsible for their children’s academic success. They embrace it and feel passionately about it. As one parent said, “the happiest day of my life was when I knew my son would be enrolled in North Star and he would have an opportunity to receive a great education.” They believe that charter schools like North Star are beacons of hope for parents and students. As one parent said “build on what works, expand it to benefit the entire public education system, and, in turn, renew and revitalize Newark.”

Todd May