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A Promise to Renew: Try, Try Again at Quitman Street Renew School

Hidden successes, public shortfalls and a make-or-break year for one Newark school

Erskine Glover was home recovering from hip replacement surgery last summer when the scores arrived.

The principal of Quitman Street Renew School knew based on internal assessments that more than 80 percent of his students had shown growth during the 2012-2013 academic year. But he also knew that most were still not performing at grade level, and the state’s standardized tests are grade-level exams. So he was hoping for the best but bracing for bad news.

Still, when the pass rates landed in Glover’s email box, he felt as if he’d been punched in the gut. Fourth-grade reading: 9 percent of students proficient. Fourth-grade math: 17 percent. Not all numbers were that low, but the best performance, in eighth-grade English, was 50 percent proficiency. Most grades and subjects saw declines, and overall, fewer than a quarter of students scored at or above grade level, placing Quitman in the bottom 2 percent of schools statewide.

“It looks like we’re not even doing anything,” Glover said. Nothing could have been further from the truth. He and numerous staff members have been putting in tremendous hours, in some cases -- his included -- at the expense of their own health.

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Credit: Amanda Brown
Principal Erskine Glover, chatting with student Zyion Bethea, is a father figure to many of the 600 children at Quitman. He wears sneakers because he is recovering from having his left hip replaced and awaiting surgery on the right side.

He wondered if he should step aside and allow someone else the chance to turn around one of Newark’s historically low-performing schools, which serves an impoverished population of 600 children in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. It took a serious pep talk from his boss, Assistant Superintendent Peter Turnamian, to persuade him to stay the course. If anyone could be the right fit for Quitman, it should be Glover, 44, a highly educated and painfully sincere African-American leader in a predominantly African-American school. He commands widespread respect from colleagues and parents, and many students look to him -- the father of two teenagers -- as a paternal figure.

Although Glover has been principal of Quitman since 2010, it had only been a year since the start of Newark’s “renew school” reform initiative, giving him and seven other principals hiring power and increased resources and budgetary discretion. Superintendent Cami Anderson said from the beginning she knew the payoff wouldn’t come overnight, and she would wait a few years before passing judgment on the principals’ success or failure. They were, after all, trying to reverse decades of inadequacies.

What’s more, several factors beyond Glover’s control influenced the outcome of the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJ ASK) at Quitman. For one thing, the tests themselves were harder as the state began phasing in the tough national Common Core education standards. For another, Quitman’s student population is rapidly changing: There was an influx of children with special needs when their school closed last academic year; meanwhile, some of the highest-performing students are being recruited by well-regarded charter schools. And much of Quitman’s best progress has occurred in the early grades that don’t take the state tests. (NJ ASK assesses third grade through eighth.)

So Glover decided to keep trying, buoyed by the belief that vastly different results can come from the same children depending on the actions of adults. Yet again he resolved to prove to the world that he is not a failure, and his students are just as capable as children anywhere.

Today, six months later, several new initiatives are in place at Quitman. All classes now have a half hour a day of “sustained reading” -- with students quietly reading a passage and answering analytical questions to prepare for the next round of state exams this spring. The school day is now 7.5 hours long, compared with a national average of 6.5. A hundred students have been asked to stay for an additional hour and a half of daily tutoring, and about 80 of them typically do. The most advanced middle school students now have their own honors classes.

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Credit: Amanda Brown
Quitman Principal Erskine Glover, checking a student’s work, says he believes that at least half of the school’s students can achieve grade-level proficiency on this year’s state standardized tests. He tells his teachers to emphasize good teaching over test preparation despite the high stakes for the school.

Glover is spending more than $80,000 for a consultant from the company that makes Quitman’s new math curriculum to work on site with his teachers. It is a lot of money, he knows, but the district required schools to adopt new textbooks last fall, and Glover felt his team needed considerable support to teach the material effectively. He said the investment is already paying dividends in the quality of instruction he observes.

“We’re counting on these things to launch us to another level,” said Evelyn Vargas, the vice principal.

Quitman was one of four Newark schools recently selected by the district to try what’s known as “blended learning” in third through fifth grades, some of the classes with the lowest test scores. The schools were chosen based on academic need, coupled with officials’ belief in their technological capacity and leadership ability to roll out yet another new initiative smoothly.

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