Three years ago a terrific film was made by some of those who thought our failing schools were succeeding in subsuming America in a morass of neglect-mandated mediocrity. The film, provocatively entitled Waiting for Superman, got it wrong, though. Turns out that when it comes to fixing our school system, the most hopeful answer in America may be a super woman — Julie Jackson, to be exact.
The former college athlete grew up in a small town, not the inner city, and became a teacher almost by accident. After some postgraduation time in the Teach for America program, she stuck with it, moving from teaching to leadership roles as dean and principal at perhaps the most impressive inner-city elementary school in the country, North Star Academy in Newark, New Jersey. Now she is the managing director of Uncommon Schools, the growing network of free charter schools in the northeast to which North Star belongs.
To walk into North Star Academy is to experience uplift as an active verb. The raucous, fun and cheering morning assemblies led by Jackson and other school leaders feature a few hundred black and brown kids essentially doing “math” jump rope in front of all of their classmates: “Quick, what’s 6 times 6? Double it. Subtract it from 100. Divide it by 4.” Almost every kid is on free or reduced lunch, which means they are poor. But the school’s students consistently outperform their counterparts in the state at every grade level, and an amazing 90 percent of North Star’s graduates enroll in four-year universities.
This is no fluke. And it’s one of the reasons that Oprah paid the school a surprise visit just to see what’s going on. Jackson and the schools’ dedicated staff have figured out a lot of things. Some of it has to do with race: Can young white teachers, like the ones Teach for America loves, be strong and insistent enough with young black and brown kids to help them succeed?
Some of it has to do with the day-to-day. As Jackson frequently reminds her students and teachers, “Showing up every day is not enough.” Sometimes it’s a matter of preparation, and she is a firm believer in rigorous lesson plans. And sometimes, like jumping rope, it’s just a matter of practicing and perfecting simple teaching techniques: from strong, decisive instructions to positive framing to sharing best practices with fellow teachers.
For Jackson, these simple teaching techniques boil down to the following: keeping students engaged and building on what they do well — something she learned in part from being an athlete. “If a great coach wants you to fix something,” Jackson claims, “they are also aware of what you do well. And when you hear what you do well, you’re motivated to fix what you need to fix.”
Part of it is also making long-term goals and aspirations a part of the daily routine. At North Star, because, as Jackson puts it, the goal is to “give kids the opportunity to graduate from a four-year, rigorous college,” the class groupings are named after these destination colleges. Such daily exposure to colleges, Jackson says, helps inspire parents and students “to one day see these as an actual possibility.”
Jackson tells the story of a first-grader at North Star from the Syracuse class who approached her during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament last year. “Mrs. Jackson, my team won last night. My college won,” the boy proclaimed joyfully. “And my mom and I are watching the game again tonight because our team is winning.”
With many education insiders hoping that the nation’s first black president makes radical education reform the centerpiece of his last term (after the initial 2013 flurry), Jackson has the skill set to be just the kind of transformative leader that is needed to lift up the education of America’s most needy kids.
“If given the opportunity,” Jackson believes, “all kids have the potential for greatness.” And she had dedicated her life to creating those opportunities. Jackson hopes to one day start her own network of schools, a network that, like North Star, will be founded on rigorous academics and a strong sense of community. And the fundamental principle guiding those education efforts will remain Jackson’s personal categorical imperative: ”If I don’t want my children in that class, then no other children should be in that class.”
Waiting for Jackson, indeed.