Profile: Fund CEO Has Unobstructed View of Newark’s Charters

With help from the likes of Gates and Zuckerberg, Mashea Ashton juggles advocacy and support for city's charters

Mashea Ashton, CEO, Newark Charter School Fund.
Name: Mashea Ashton

Job: Chief Executive Officer, Newark Charter School Fund, 2009-present

Birthplace: Willingboro, NJ, where she was an All-American high school soccer player

What she does: With a staff of seven and commitments of almost $30 million in grants and programs over the past five years, Ashton has become a central player in the city’s nationally recognized charter school movement. Schools operate separately, but the fund provides advocacy and support for staff training, recruitment, and other improvements. It is also a key partner with the Newark public schools in developing the city’s fledgling universal enrollment system.

How big is Newark charter community? Twenty-two schools and growing, serving some 10,000 students, close to a quarter of the overall public school enrollment in the city. Newark’s charters also account for more than a quarter of all charters in New Jersey.

Where it gets its money: The fund is built on donations from several prominent national foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as local ones like the Prudential Foundation and the Victoria Foundation. A main contributor in the latest round of support is the Foundation for Newark’s Future, the organization funded through the $100 million donation to the city by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

How she got here: Ashton taught three years in traditional public schools in Williamsburg, Va., and Washington, D.C., before she moved to the charter sector as a program administrator in Chicago and then New York City. She worked four years with the KIPP charter school network and then headed New York City’s charter school office, before coming to Newark in 2009 to lead the new fund.

Why charters? Ashton said her experience teaching found the challenges to urban education more about the adults than the children, and she saw charter schools as a viable alternative to traditional public schools.

A boy named Nicholas: As an education major at the College of William and Mary, Ashton said an African-American fifth-grader named Nicholas told her that he’d do no better than end up in jail. “That frustrated me, but how could you have such low expectations for a child, only in fifth grade,” she said. “That stuck with me.”

Charters just one piece: “I don’t think the charters are the magic bullet or that all schools should be charters. It’s really about having a portfolio of high-quality schools, and seeing charters as part of the solution and strategy of bringing quality education options to all kids.”

Early lesson in power of school choice: One of two twin girls, Ashton said she was pulled from Willingboro public schools by her mother after kindergarten, when the school wanted to hold her and her sister back. She went to Catholic schools and thrived, even beyond her soccer honors at Holy Cross High School in Delran, and eventually went to the College of William and Mary. “If my mother didn’t have the advocacy to take us out of a school that wasn’t working and put us on this path . . .” she said. “It made all the difference.”

Twin travels in the same circles: Ashton’s twin sister, Michele Mason, is a program officer with Teach for America in Newark.

District vs. charter schools: Newark is notorious for its public battles between district and charter schools, especially since superintendent Cami Anderson has sought to share space between the two. Ashton said the arguments were rancorous but the discussion was worthwhile. “There is still a tremendous amount of misinformation and myth around what charter schools are,” she said.

Access and equity: A big criticism of charters is that they enroll and retain the same students that traditional schools are required to serve. Ashton maintained that Newark charter schools, by and large, serve students equally, but recognized there is work to do to increase the transparency of the schools overall. “The reality is we don’t have good data across the city on retention, real promotion rates,” she said. “There may be some school that are bad actors in this, but I do believe that most go above and beyond to provide a quality education to children.”

What happened to Nicholas: Ashton reached out six months ago and made contact with Nicholas, her student from Williamsburg. And despite her best efforts, she said he ended up doing time in jail. “It is absolutely about high expectations, but we also have to give students the skills to compete, and also the tenacity and grit to persevere and fight through real challenges,” she said.

Personal: Ashton has 3-year-old twins herself, Duke and Dylan. She and her husband, a banker, live in Manhattan.

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