“Even in my seat as a charter school leader, I always say that I wish I could have done what I’m able to do here in a traditional district school.”
That’s William Hayes, principal of East Camden Middle School, one of Camden’s new “renaissance” charters (this one operated by Mastery) that are distinguished by an unusually collaborative partnership with district schools. Hayes acknowledges a bit of surprise at his career trajectory. Earlier on “I bought the philosophy that all charters are bad,” he said, but now he embraces the “open-doors culture of improvement.”
Hayes is willing to do whatever it takes to help East Camden’s children overcome the difficult circumstances involved in living in New Jersey’s poorest city and the fourth most-violent city in the nation. There are more single mothers in East Camden than 99.8% of neighborhoods in America as well as a greater percentage of children living in poverty than 96% of America. Just six percent of East Camden residents have four-year college degrees. It’s no secret most schools struggle to serve students from these kinds of demographics. Yet Hayes is determined to overcome “the persistent failure” of schools that serve“very needy students.”
What was your childhood like?
As a young child I lived in Westbury, New York with my three younger brothers. We were poor. My mother lost her job when I was in third grade and we moved to Hartsville, South Carolina — total population 7,000 people — to live with my grandparents. But I had all sorts of positive influences because I come from a long line of educators. I’m a Head Start baby and had the support of community groups like my church and my Cub Scouts troop.
Tell us about your own education and early career.
I received a full scholarship to Morehouse College, one of the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities. There I majored in psychology and went on to become a mental health counselor. I did my practicum at New Mission High School in Roxbury, Massachusetts, where I worked with 20 boys of color who had failed ninth grade. I created a school-based intervention program to increase college attendance — we offered assistance with identifying appropriate colleges and managing the financial aid process. The principal at New Mission hired me to run the program. While I was there I got my M.A. in education from Harvard, specializing in Risk and Prevention Counseling.
After two years I was appointed as Assistant Principal, attending Northeastern’s Principal Residency Network. I was ready to be a principal, so I did a national search, applying to traditional schools all over the country: Chicago, New Orleans, D.C., Cleveland. At the time, Cleveland had an initiative to recruit leaders for a school turnaround effort, and that’s where I landed. I was principal of a pre-K through 8th-grade school for three years. I was able to reorganize the school, but there were many bureaucratic restrictions that impeded school improvement. Then a friend gave me information on a charter network called Mastery that had an opening in Philadelphia.
What were your feelings about charter schools?
I was so focused on traditional schools. I didn’t want to go to a charter school because I thought they were creaming off top students and I do believe that children have the right to go to high-performing schools with high-quality instruction right in their own neighborhood. I also thought they all used “no excuses” discipline, three strikes and you’re out. But the people I spoke to at Mastery convinced me that I had been mistaken to think that all charters are bad and that, after reflection, the network had implemented restorative justice, meeting families, and having conversations, which are tools we use to build up students as we build up interventions. There were no openings in Philadelphia, but there was one in Camden. That’s why I’m here.
East Camden Middle School certainly doesn’t cream: 28% of its 310 students qualify for special education services and 10% are English Language Learners. How do you make that work?
There is no screening process for students. Our enrollment mirrors our catchment area, so we have a wide range of needs. We meet those needs through ongoing adjustments. Some kids are pulled out for basic skills, some kids work with paraprofessionals, some kids are in inclusion classes, and we have self-contained classes for our lowest-functioning students
What are your greatest challenges?
Establishing a culture of learning is our greatest challenge because our kids have persistently failed at school and their behavior is a reflection of trauma. Some of that trauma comes from living in a community that has so much violence.
There are only 77,000 residents of Camden. If there’s a violent incident over the weekend the odds are high that a few of our kids will be personally affected and we have to be ready to meet them on Monday morning. There’s a whole other level of social-emotional support that we must supply. Some of our kids have mental health issues, so we have a full-time counselor.
How do you feel about charter schools now?
I don’t believe that charters are the golden ticket to school turnarounds. Traditional schools get the brunt of scapegoating, which isn’t fair. But here, everyone is open to constructive criticism. Feedback isn’t a threat, and we talk far more about development and improvement during evaluations. I have much more autonomy over my budget and my staffing. In years past I may have needed a full year to bring in someone I needed, but here I can do it in a month. We’re just more flexible, with a constant ability to adjust and respond in a real-time way.
The original goal of charter schools was to innovate and then transfer successful practices back to traditional schools, but that transfer never happened. Maybe it can happen in Camden. There’s a healthy balance among traditional schools, renaissance schools, and regular charters. After some intentional work — originally other principals were hesitant about speaking with me — I’ve started having great meetings with people who work for Camden Public Schools.
Right now I’m very focused on the balance between getting kids up to speed and getting them ready for college. They all need to feel challenged and supported. That’s going to happen here.