Mark Rynone considers his passion for education as an outgrowth of family values. After all, his mother, brother and a handful of other relatives work as teachers and education issues have dominated conversation at the dinner table since he was a child.
While he first pursued business as a career—he thinks of this period now as the archetypal quest for independence—he never felt that he was “making a difference” in the corporate world. Hence, his trajectory to his current position as heading up the New Jersey Special Education Collaborative, a program of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.
I recently had a chance to chat with him. Here’s our conversation.
How do you power up in the morning?
I’m definitely a coffee guy, iced in the summer and hot in the winter. I confess that I can’t resist the holiday coffees from Starbucks, and I rarely pass up an opportunity for Dunkin’ Donuts pumpkin spice in the fall.
How did you get from the world of business to the world of education?
I was successful in the business world, but I always felt that this wasn’t the right fit. I’d remember back to when I was a swim instructor to kids at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), where I got my business degree. That connection to learning—that’s what I was after, that ability to make a difference in a child’s life. And so I went back to TCNJ, got my master’s in teaching, and took a job at the same elementary school I attended as a kid.
Can you describe what your experience was like as an educator?
I loved working with the students. If teaching was focused solely on their academic and social growth, I’d probably still be in the classroom.
Ultimately, as a new teacher, I didn’t quite understand how it all worked with administration, the union and the politics of it all. I’ll never forget in my first year, I had a student with disabilities—he had an individualized education program (IEP)—and he had fallen far behind his grade level. I worked with him before school, after school and whenever else I could find time.
And he did so well, going up 70 points on his state standardized test! But he didn’t make the cut-off for proficiency and there was no celebration about his growth. It just felt like no one cared about his individual achievement because it had no positive impact on the school or the district.
To me, my greatest accomplishment as an educator was my work with that student and I knew that my passion was for student learning, especially those students who were often overlooked. It was simply a matter of finding a better outlet for that passion, that fire.
What was the next step for you?
After leaving the classroom, I started working for an education consulting group. We had a state contract to do school-based data work and for Medicaid reimbursement. I loved seeing what went on behind the scenes, but I was too far from kids. I wanted to get closer to the ground.
At the same time, the Newark Charter School Fund was working with a coalition of school leaders who wanted to set up a resource center to support their teachers who worked with special needs students. With this in mind, I was brought on to establish the New Jersey Special Education Collaborative.
Right away, I felt it was important to look not just at Newark, but at New Jersey as a whole. I knew there were other districts that needed help, particularly with moving away from anecdotal evidence and moving toward qualitative and quantitative research to ensure that students with disabilities get all the support they need.
We’re not just about charters, and that’s by design. The way districts serve children best is by working together, regardless of a particular school’s governance structure. Different groups, different people, have different strengths and the way we build the best model is by creating synergy and sharing best practices.
You’re a really new organization—just 18 months old—and it can be challenging to gain traction. How is that going?
We’re so pleased at the response to the services we offer. Currently we have 22 member schools and about 90 percent of them are charters. We do anticipate fast growth: Four additional schools are getting ready to join. We’re spreading to Camden, Paterson and Plainfield. Each school pays a membership fee.
What do they get for that fee?
We first put together a comprehensive program review, almost like an IEP for that school. Ideally we get a full picture of what special education looks like at that local education agency (LEA). We look at documents, policies, procedures, and have conversations with relevant staff. We identify strengths and focus on “growth areas,” or needs, and then develop an action plan.
Once that plan’s in place we offer professional development, technical assistance, audits for compliance and student growth, as well as advice to fully recover funds through the Special Education Medicaid Initiative (SEMI), which most schools don’t take advantage of.
In Newark and Camden, we are working to streamline out-of-district placements and student record transfers, as well as working to streamline the process of classifying students. For example, we have kids coming out of Camden traditional schools and moving to renaissance schools (district-charter hybrids) or charters, and the other way around. The work we’re doing with all parties involved is so we will get all schools to get a better joint understanding of specific classifications, which will enable students to have more seamless transitions.
Here’s the best-kept secret: If schools join the Collaborative and follow our advice on Medicaid reimbursement, that recovered money easily pays for their membership.
New Jersey is such a charter-school-war kind of place. Are you feeling it?
I think our mission is so clear and compelling, that in some ways we’re protected by that mission. We probably will at some point, but if we did come across any naysayers, I’d love to know what their objection could possibly be.
Your career has had its own kind of synergy and you seem to have found your place. What are your dreams for the future?
I certainly have found my place. I am so excited and passionate about this work. The impact we can have in New Jersey can be significant as we embed best practices into schools. We’ve just started working with a new charter in Trenton called Achievers Early College Charter School—it will open in September—and we have been able to sit down with the founders and intentionally build their programming to best serve children with disabilities. We can affect change right on the ground.
But it’s not just about systems. It’s about looking at individual students with unique needs, building a kind of personalized learning for them. That IEP architecture easily can be applied to any student. Shouldn’t that be the spirit of American education?