In May the state delivered student results on the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) to high schools across New Jersey. At Central High School in Newark, principal Ras Baraka assembled the students and faculty into the school’s auditorium to announce the test results to the entire school community. Everyone in the school was present, and the feeling in the room was electric. There was mixture of excitement, pride and triumphant elation when they learned that the unofficial scores on the HSPA showed a 32.5 percent growth in English Language Arts (from 36.6 percent in 2010 to 69.9 percent in 2011) and a 25.9 percent growth in mathematics (from 19.9 percent in 2010 to 46 percent in 2011).
When the results were released publicly at the May 24 Newark Public Schools Advisory Board meeting, the response was equally exuberant.
The gains achieved by the students at Central High School are unprecedented, and to many outsiders, totally unexpected. Central High has long been regarded as an under-performing school, and for many ninth graders and their parents, it has often not been a school of choice.
In June 2010, Central High School received one of 20 school improvement grants awarded by the state of New Jersey, a sum of $5.8 million to be spent over three years. Over the past year, the staff and students of Central High School (CHS) have worked aggressively to improve instruction and address student learning. The growth in scores is the result of their hard work and focused efforts.
The School Improvement Grant (SIG) plan developed by Central called for the implementation of several reforms, including: extended learning time, job-embedded professional development, and a variety of youth development activities. The plan implemented by Central High School followed the priorities of a strategy that was also being employed by its six feeder schools in the Newark Global Village School Zone (NGVSZ). Working together in a partnership called the Broader and Bolder Approach to Education (BBA), the NGVSZ schools have participated in the development and implementation of many of the strategies that Central has put in place.
We have had the honor of working with the principals, staff, parents and students at these schools and have observed them undertake this work during a period of instability and turmoil in the Newark public schools. While the media and much of the public have been focused on what will happen with the $100 million challenge grant given by Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg, the debates over charter schools and school consolidation, and finally the hiring of a new superintendent, the work of the NGVZ schools has proceeded under the radar. Amidst all of the controversy and conflict, the hard work undertaken by students at staff at Central has generated relatively little notice or attention.
Over the past year, Central HS has relied upon four strategies to improve outcomes for students. First and most important, the school encouraged all stakeholders to believe that student success could be achieved through collaboration. Ms. Sharnee Brown, the academic vice principal, put it this way: "Student achievement is everybody’s business." Throughout the year, parents were informed about the schools' goals and vision through regular communication. Additionally, every administrator took responsibility for providing tutoring to students in need of additional support. Students received regular reminders about their responsibility to work hard, and they were encouraged to seek help if they needed it. CHS administrators also ended the long-standing practice of isolating English Language Learners and Special Education students. As a result, this year all Haitian-Creole speakers passed the HSPA.
Second, the school identified problems and worked quickly and creatively to solve them. For example, after discovering that some teachers were experiencing difficulty in meeting the needs of their students at the beginning of the year, teachers were reassigned to different classes or grade levels. The goal was to ensure that all students had access to a teacher who could meet their learning needs.
Third, a professional development program was developed collaboratively by the school and a team of external professional development providers who worked closely with the school. This made it possible for the school to provide targeted professional development to teachers in the areas in which the data showed students needed the most assistance.
Fourth, by extending the length of the school day, CHS was able to provide students who needed the most help with a variety of differentiated support. This included HSPA preparation classes, and a wide variety of electives and enrichment classes.
It is still too early to tell whether the other six schools in the Newark Global Village Zone will demonstrate the kind of progress that has been achieved by Central. However, we are confident that if the entire school community remains focused on the vision and the strategies that we have adopted to support the development of the "whole child" -- through an integrated focus on education, health, and community engagement -- success will be attainable.
At Central High School, stakeholders are coming together to disrupt the normalization of failure, dismantle the status quo and to create change from the inside out. We believe this is a model that educators and parents throughout Newark can learn from.