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Robert Treat Academy Featured in the Asbury Park Press

Lessons to Fix Asbury Park Schools

Read this article as it originally appeared in the Asbury Park Press

At Robert Treat Academy Charter School in Newark, poverty, single-parent homes and neighborhood crime are no excuse for poor academic performance. In fact, the school’s administration requires all 600 students to attend school until 5 p.m., as well as mandatory Saturday instruction.

Students walk the school’s hardwood halls in Kelly green and khaki uniforms as Principal Theresa Adubato directs girls to pull their socks up and boys to walk with their hands at their sides.

The teachers, Adubato said, spend more time at school than they do at home.

But in a city like Newark, saturated with gun violence and home to high numbers of immigrants and broken families, this is what it takes, she said.

“We don’t allow them to use those challenges at home as an excuse,” said Adubato, who leads the school’s North Ward campus. “The more time the children spend in school ... they are going to reach whatever bar you have set for them.”

The school, which has two campuses and accepts students by lottery, ranks in the top 10 percent in the state for the NJ ASK (New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge) test.

In 2008, Robert Treat Academy was named a 2008 No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon School by then-U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. This award recognizes schools that help students make significant progress and close the achievement gap.

The nearby Roberto Clemente Elementary School in Newark, on the other hand, ranked significantly lower on the NJ ASK, scoring in the bottom 10 percent, according to its state report card. The school had a proficiency rate higher than only 9 percent of schools in the state, the report said.

Both Roberto Clemente and Robert Treat’s North Ward campus are located in an impoverished section of the city consisting of public housing, detached single-family homes and a high Latino population.

Some 40 miles down the highway is the Asbury Park School District, which has failed because of some of the same urban issues faced by Newark youth, schools officials say.

Last year, 51 percent of the Asbury Park High School senior class graduated. Only 2 percent of the students who took the SAT achieved scores of 1550, according to the state’s school-by-school performance reports. The report indicated Asbury Park High School had a composite SAT score of 962, well below the state average of 1512.

Asbury Park school officials say enrollment has drastically declined in the past decade, with students fleeing to charter and private schools. Interim Superintendent Robert Mahon said he believes most parents pull their children out of the district because of violence and high dropout rates.

However, experts and parents both say charter schools offer more than just safety and retention.

Extended class days, Saturday instruction, smaller class sizes and parental engagement are also keeping charter schools ahead of the curve, said Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, a professor at Rutgers University’s graduate school of Public Policy and Administration in Camden.

Bonilla-Santiago is also the founder of LEAP Academy University Charter School in Camden, which has a 100 percent graduation rate and a 100 percent college placement rate by adhering to those practices, she said.

Urban public schools like Asbury Park and Newark are failing because they continue to use traditional teaching models that are not as effective anymore, Bonilla-Santiago said.

“They need to reinvent themselves, they need to come up with a new model,” she said. “You have to be prepared, get there early ... and have the curriculum that can teach these children and hold people accountable.”

Bonilla-Santiago also said struggling public schools need to look at requiring uniforms for students and implementing evening workshops where parents learn how to support their children at home. She said effective family-support programs help schools develop a community, and children feel nurtured.

Robert Treat Academy PTA president Migdalia Ramos, of Newark, said she chose charter schools for her two sons because she believes they offer a stricter, more loving environment than public schools.

Ramos said Robert Treat’s mandatory after school-program and four-hour Saturday class — which provide enrichment, peer tutoring and remediation — ensure that every child has a chance to be successful.

She also lauded the daily morning assembly, where students go to the podium and discuss current events and activities they are doing in the classroom. Ramos, who has a seventh grader at the school, said the assembly motivates students before they head to class.

“These things are important for the kids because they feel loved and wanted,” said Ramos, 54, who grew up attending Newark public schools. “It prepares these kids to be better in life and not be afraid to express themselves.”
Public school success

But the educators at charter schools like Robert Treat Academy are not the only group that appear to have it figured out.

Union City public schools made headlines in both The New York Times and The Washington Post for a book authored by David Kirp that touts the district’s striking achievements. Kirp referred to Union City as an “unlikely poster child for education reform.”

The school district, similar to Asbury Park, is located in the heart of a poor community where Spanish is the primary language spoken in many households.

Superintendent Stanley Sanger said 94 percent of the students are Latino, 31 percent are in the bilingual or English Language Learners (ELL) programs and 87 percent receive free or reduced-cost lunch. Total enrollment there is 11,479.

The district has spent the past 20 years repairing its education system after it neared a state takeover in the late 1980s because of a plummeting graduation rate and low test scores, Sanger said.

Today, the district graduates 79 percent of its seniors, and students have achieved among the highest scores on New Jersey’s standardized exams, according to the district. One success was in 2012, when third-grade general education students achieved an 86.1 average, three points above the state average on the math exam, and scored more than 15 points above the state objective for urban school districts on the language arts exam.

Sanger said the district’s key to high test scores is summarized in a blueprint handbook that highlights best practices and is shared with all teachers. School officials update the handbook annually, and it includes a step-by-step guide on how to prepare students for standardized tests.

“If we follow this, the chances of success are great,” Sanger said. “We don’t allow any school to act in isolation.”

Sanger also credits the school district’s stability in leadership — something state school officials say Asbury Park lacks.

The majority of Union City’s administrators in the central office were promoted from within the district, Sanger said. For example, Sanger himself has been with Union City Schools for 41 years. He began as a teacher, then worked his way up to a school principal, assistant superintendent and now superintendent.

The district also looks to hire teachers who grew up in Union City or attended the school district.

“We understand the challenges of the community,” Sanger said. “Many administrators are Hispanic, and with that comes a sensitivity and understanding to meet the needs of students and understand the plight of the urban child.”

Union City schools also offer a support service committee composed of faculty members that meets twice a month to discuss the needs of individual children who are struggling academically and socially.

The district has a day care at the high school for teen mothers; parent workshops attended by at least 65 percent of parents; SAT preparation courses for sophomores, juniors and seniors; and extended school day instruction in which students work in small groups.

Union City, a former Abbott district, spent $19,853 per pupil in the 2011-12 school year. Asbury Park spent $30,485.

Union City schools parent Tomas Nunez said he is pleased with the district’s support systems and the sense of pride among teachers that trickles down to the classroom.

Nunez has a second grader at Robert Ward Elementary and a 3-year-old at Eugenio Maria de Hostos Center for Early Childhood Education.

The district’s early-childhood program has received national recognition, with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praising it as a “national model” after visiting last month.

Nunez said the full-day preschool prepares students for grade school and teaches them readiness skills.

“The academic program is becoming more challenging in the upper grades,” Nunez said. “So I think the stronger the foundation, the better they are down the line.”
Testing the practices

So, could the practices of Robert Treat Academy and Union City schools help the students in Asbury Park succeed?

School board members say they are willing to test them.

“I am all for trying new things that will help our kids,” school board Vice President Nicolle Harris said. “But programs like that are going to require the buy-in from our parents, students and staff.”

School board President Geneva Smallwood said the district needs to start looking at models of what’s being done at successful districts and discuss how they can implement them in Asbury Park.

She said it is critical for the school board to partner with community events, such as the Asbury Park Press’ Summit for Success on Thursday, and with parents to find solutions for the students.

“I think it sounds like a wonderful program,” Smallwood said of Robert Treat Academy. “Maybe we can look into that and see what’s going on there.”

Asbury Park senior Tylisha Allen said the high school needs to consider practices such as an ongoing SAT preparation class like Union City’s to increase scores, and mandatory after-school tutoring and instruction for those students who fall behind.

Allen, 18, said the high school has had organizational issues that hindered student success. One example she gave was two years ago, when some students went several weeks without being assigned an English class. When they finally did receive the class on their schedule, there was no teacher, she said.

“It was terrible,” Allen said. “Kids sat in the auditorium for weeks at a time because they didn’t have teachers.”

She said she believes that’s why students didn’t pass the English portion of the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) and ultimately didn’t graduate. The HSPA test also includes material that Allen said she learned in previous grades, and her classes did not review it.

Allen, who has a full-ride scholarship to Ohio University, said most teachers in Asbury Park care about the students’ success but need more individual freedom, like charter schools.

“I’d like for the state to give the teachers a chance to prove they can teach the students and improve the test scores,” Allen said. “Our school doesn’t have control over what we learn. A lot of the things they try to input to improve our system, it makes no sense.”

School officials at both Union City and Robert Treat Academy agree that educating urban children is a difficult job, but say it can be done in a school district like Asbury Park.

Theresa Adubato, the Robert Treat principal, said the most important thing a district needs is dedicated teachers who are willing to sacrifice their time and energy.

“Money is not the solution,” Adubato said. “If you truly value children, you are going to do whatever you need to do to have them be successful.”

Bonilla-Santiago said Asbury Park needs to completely restructure its school system in order to improve student academic performance.

She said the district should look at a new curriculum, smaller class sizes and letting go of teachers who are failing to prepare the students.

“Hold your teachers and administration accountable,” Bonilla-Santiago said.