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Newark School Shows the World

Newark School Shows the World

by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo
News Source: The Star Ledger
Mon, 04/08/2013

In Newark, we’re too often forced to grapple with the myth that our children can’t reach the same academic heights as children elsewhere. With so many families struggling economically and with a nationwide achievement gap that leaves low-income students at a gross disadvantage, general sentiment is that we simply can’t expect our students to overcome the statistics stacked against them.

Last week, the children of Newark proved that myth wrong once again. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development gave U.S. high schools a rare chance to take a test based on its Program for International Student Assessment, the internationally recognized assessment that tests what 15-year-olds know in reading, math and science. The test also measures key competencies, such as critical thinking and problem-solving.

For the first time, this new test makes PISA-based data available by individual school — not just by country.

Students at North Star Academy College Preparatory High School cracked the top 10 countries for global K-12 academic achievement. They’ve demonstrated they not only can outperform their peers in the United States, but also hold their own in the international arena, among countries whose students usually outscore the United States academically.

Indeed, North Star students outperformed the national averages for high-achieving countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway and Switzerland. North Star even beat the United States’ overall average, which was ranked 17th.

North Star is part of the Uncommon Schools Network of 32 free, public charter schools in New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts.

What can we learn from our extraordinary students? That teaching and leadership are immensely powerful, because teachers and leaders can put our students on the international playing field through hard work — together.

Every student, teacher and leader can attain those heights. It doesn’t take financial means or inborn talent. It takes a relentless cycle of learning, failing, trying again, succeeding and learning some more. It takes the hours upon hours of practice that enable humans to reach expertise in whatever they choose to do.

The teachers and leaders of Newark, as well as the students, are a living testament to this. North Star’s students work so incredibly hard every single day. Their teachers work closely with instructional leaders, who coach them continuously up to the next level. Every week, they make a few small improvements to their teaching that bring them, step by step, to mastery.

And this growth — along with the growth of many other Newark educators — is supported by the likes of Superintendent Cami Anderson and Mayor Cory Booker. Anderson’s particular focus on the students who need great schools the most has inspired us to work harder to serve even more of the very neediest students, including additional outreach and pressing for policies to ensure that a neighborhood’s neediest or lowest-income students get the first chance at great schools.

Booker’s dedication to supporting Newark’s students is unwavering. He has brought an enormously helpful spotlight to Newark schools and has attracted resources to the city that have helped countless children.

There is no question that the power of great schools and strong leadership can change life trajectories. And there’s no question that schools everywhere can do this work.

Scores of educators across the globe have implemented the instructional leadership strategies employed by North Star to bring them such success. The kind of success Newark high school students demonstrated last week should never be owned by any one school — and it doesn’t have to be. It’s something replicable that any educator can leverage to give any student the learning opportunities he or she needs.

The beauty of an internationally recognized test such as PISA is that it gives us even higher standards to meet. North Star’s students impressed us with their top-10 scores, but Shanghai raised the bar for us if we wish to have students ready for the global marketplace. In Shanghai, even the lowest-income students outperformed the wealthiest students in the United States.

That’s incredibly humbling to learn: If those students can reach such heights, we can surely strive for the same for our students. The children of Newark — and of every city — certainly deserve it.


Paul Bambrick-Santoyo is managing director of Uncommon Schools Newark/North Star Academy Charter School.