Charter High Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap
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North Star Academy Charter School of Newark
North Star Academy Charter School of Newark Newark, N.J.


School Profile: Selected Variables
Year First Chartered and Authorizer 1997, state
Grades and Enrollment 5–12 and 125 (high school only)
Student Ethnicity 85% African-American
0% Asian American
14% Hispanic
0% white
Special Education 7%
Free and Reduced-price Lunch 90%
Graduation Rate 100%*
Annual Cost per Student $9,090

* 100% in 2004 and one student did not graduate in 2005 and will finish in 2006.
Source: School records data from 2005–06

North Star was born when James Verrilli, a teacher in Newark public schools, and Norman Atkins, a journalist running a private foundation, set out to better the dismal reality facing Newark inner-city high school students. In the country's second poorest city, only 26 percent of graduating seniors were planning to go to college, only 6 percent actually going, and a mere 2 percent making it all the way through. Verrilli's and Atkins' vision was to create an uncommon public school that exceeded community expectations, with a staff that would aggressively combat the achievement gap, making sure every student was academically, culturally, and socially prepared to succeed in college. Originally North Star Academy was started as a middle school, but as parents saw the poor options for students after eighth grade, they asked North Star to create a high school, and its eight-member board, including two parents, agreed.

It is no surprise, eight years later, that North Star Academy's waiting list is over 1,600 students. Families know that if their children are selected through the lottery to attend, they will work hard, successfully complete high school, and go on to college. The reason, according to one visitor, is that North Star "leaders are determined not only to bridge the achievement gap but to obliterate it."

Currently in its ninth year, North Star Academy has opened a second middle school, adding one additional fifth-grade cohort of 75 students. The plan is to create two middle schools to feed into one high school in order to expand the high school course offerings and curricular program. In collaboration with Uncommon Schools, Inc., the school will open two K–4 schools over the next five years and by the 2010–11 school year North Star Academy will serve a maximum of 1,300 students across five campuses—two K–4 schools, two 5–8 schools, and one high school. The school continues to recruit students from Newark public schools, with staff and others pounding the pavement to spread the word at churches, grocery stores, and local elementary schools, drawing students who are typically performing below the district average and effectively preparing them for college. And while working hard for this preparation, every student pledges to live by the school's core values of caring, respect, responsibility, and justice.

School Operations and Educational Program

North Star now serves 384 students in grades 5–12, 99 percent African-American or Latino, operating on an 11-month school year with an extended day program. One hundred and twenty-five students are in high school. North Star Academy's devotion to preparing these students to succeed in college and life beyond is reflected in its graduation requirements. All students take four years of English, math, science, and history, and three years of foreign language, physical education, and arts, surpassing the New Jersey state requirements. Course offerings include AP-level classes in calculus, U.S. history, U.S. government, and English, as well as honors-level classes in math and science. All other classes are untracked and provide honors-level college preparatory work. North Star Academy students also are required to pass the N.J. High School Proficiency Assessment, complete a senior thesis as well as a senior composition, take the SAT at least twice, complete 40 hours of community service, and apply to at least two colleges.

One of North Star's most innovative features is the level of personalization and commitment to ensuring student mastery of the content standards. The school has developed a set of interim assessments, aligned with state standards and the curriculum, given every six to eight weeks. Results are analyzed by the teacher, department chair, and administrator, who look to see who has mastered specific standards for that unit and who has not. It is then the teacher's responsibility to either re-teach the material in a different way if several students have not mastered it or to provide individual tutoring during afternoon study hall, before or after school, or during lunch, to ensure that each student has mastered those concepts before moving on to new ones. To support student learning, North Star also provides a Saturday school where students can receive extra help.

The school culture is first established in middle school with a morning circle, when all students and teachers gather to the call of the djembe drum. This is a time when students chant affirmations that they will go on to college and apologize to the community for any disciplinary infractions, such as tardies and poor conduct, and when teachers and students share positive stories about students. At one meeting, a teacher related that over the weekend every eighth grader but one had attended Saturday school and worked hard. Another shared that her students created a project of sewing slavery costumes and enacted scenes from a book they recently finished reading. One student thanked her peers for carrying her books while she was on crutches. Another acknowledged the helpfulness of classmates who helped her with homework and, in particular, a challenging assignment.

North Star gives students opportunities they would not have if attending their neighborhood schools. "If you get good grades, you can go on special programs," explains one student, "like I went to New Zealand last summer with 12 students and two teachers." Each summer students participate in special internships and programs, such as a journalism program at Princeton University or the Junior Statesman program at Georgetown University. Another student talks enthusiastically about his summer business internship at Lehman Brothers.

Family Involvement and Partnerships

Communication between North Star Academy staff and families is strong. Typically, teachers are calling home about once a week to stay in contact with families. Every Thursday, students bring home a folder containing notices for parents and things for them to sign and return to the school. Unlike many high schools, North Star does not mail report cards. Parents must come to school to pick them up, at which time they have a conference with their child's teachers. Parents are full of praise for the school. One parent explains that her son was struggling in elementary school, but at North Star he caught up thanks to the teachers and the one-on-one tutoring. She likes the fact that students are kept really busy and do not have time to hang out and get in trouble. The school has a PTA, and two parents serve on the board. Parent committees help to organize schoolwide events, such as a Latino celebration, which was very well attended even though Latinos represent only 14 percent of the student body.

North Star has developed a few partnerships with community organizations and businesses to provide students with exceptional opportunities, often the kind that affluent students would have, that help to prepare them for college and life beyond Newark and high school. For example, students in good academic standing can spend the school's summer-session month off campus in internships or at work sites, or traveling to other countries, or participating in outdoor leadership programs. Deloitte Consulting adopted the senior class and has been providing mentors for these 20 students since their sophomore year. The law firm Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham LLP adopted the junior class and pays for them to take online SAT preparation courses. The school is in the fourth year of a five-year federal GEAR-UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) grant, partnering with Rutgers-Newark, to provide North Star students with tutoring and presentations about college.

Governing for Accountability

North Star Executive Director Paul Bambrick-Santoyo oversees the interim assessment process, develops the school budget, completes all of the bureaucratic requirements, including federal, state, and district forms, and meets monthly with the board. Purposely kept small for effective decisionmaking, the board of North Star Academy meets every two months to oversee the policy and school operations. There are two parents on the board and representatives from the Newark community that include a retired state senator, a former principal, and business community members.

Administrators at North Star truly are instructional leaders. High school principal Julie Jackson holds clearly articulated expectations for teachers. She tells them, "It's not enough to teach the curriculum; it is your responsibility to make sure students master the standards and concepts." In fact, a distinctive feature at North Star is its process for monitoring student understanding and gauging the effectiveness of instruction. Trained in conducting classroom observations, Jackson and her North Star middle and elementary school principal colleagues do a daily walk-through, visiting at least 85 percent of the classrooms in the school and giving informal feedback. With data from these observations and from interim student assessments, teachers use the North Star Assessment Analysis Sheet and Instruction Plan template to draw connections between their instruction and student performance and decide what they need to do to help students master the standards. As Bambrick-Santoyo explains, if a student is not doing well, this process requires teachers to immediately ask the question, "How can I teach this differently or revisit this concept so that the student will achieve mastery?" He sees his role as actively working with teachers, raising questions, observing instruction and providing feedback, supporting curriculum development and lesson planning, and strategizing on an ongoing basis. Professional development is conducted internally and aims at raising student academic achievement.

Ninety-five percent of the 2005 graduates are attending four-year universities, such as the University of Chicago, Mount Holyoke College, Boston College, Syracuse University, and Rutgers University. North Star Academy is keeping track of how its graduates are doing in college. Monitoring how students are doing in college informs practice at North Star. For example, the first class did not do well in college calculus, Bambrick-Santoyo recalls. "That was our problem: we needed to prepare them better." When they learned that graduates were struggling with college math, they promptly reexamined their curriculum to increase the rigor and accelerate learning at North Star.

One reason daily attendance averages higher than for Newark School District high schools and for the state is that students love the small school community and appreciate "dedicated teachers who will come early and stay late to give you one-on-one help. The teachers make sure you understand, they won't let you fall behind," says one student. A sophomore explains, "This is my home away from home." At regular public school, one junior says, "kids give up and there are a lot of fights. Here the teachers don't give up on you. They are working for your future, to help you go to college."

North Star Academy: Evidence of Closing the Achievement Gap

Over the past three years, North Star Academy students have consistently outperformed neighborhood and Newark district schools on state tests, scoring higher than the statewide average in New Jersey.

One hundred percent of North Star Academy's 12th-grade general education students in the class of 2005 passed the New Jersey High School Statewide Assessment (HSPA), compared to 85.1 percent of New Jersey students statewide, 44.2 percent of the Newark district students, and 19.5 percent from neighborhood schools.

North Star has the highest rate of four-year college acceptance and attendance of any school in the state of New Jersey, regardless of socioeconomic level served.

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Last Modified: 11/18/2009