Last week I interviewed Jess Rooney, founder of People’s Prep, the only charter school in Newark without a “feeder,” i.e., an elementary and/or middle school that prepares students for rigorous high school academics. The reason for this interview is People’s Prep’s first celebration honoring the Class of 2019 and their families. But these honorees aren’t high school seniors: They’re college graduates. That’s because People’s Prep’s mission is to give students the tools to graduate from the college of their choice and then support them through four-six years of higher education. Thus, this September’s incoming freshmen will call themselves the Class of 2027, the year they will graduate from college.
I wanted to know how People’s Prep manages to raise student achievement so quickly for students who arrive here years behind grade-level. Here is a lightly-edited transcript of my conversation with Jess Rooney.
Laura: What drove you to found People’s Prep?
Jess: I know everyone in New Jersey thinks of Newark Public Schools as a large district but it’s small to me because my previous work was in New York City. And I love small schools. I taught first at one of Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s small schools [an initiative that broke up large, long-struggling schools] and I also taught at the Bronx Lab School. While in NYC, I joined New Leaders for New Schools, which helps prepare urban school leaders create a culture of high expectations. After I met some people from Newark, I joined the Newark Charter School Fund to continue my professional development. In 2011 we opened People’s Prep with our “Class of 2019” and are committed to supporting them for six years after high school graduation.
Laura: What attracts you to small districts?
Jess: In a small district one school can have a huge impact. I believe in school choice and Newark needs more high-quality choices for parents.
Laura: How many students from that first class are graduating from college?
Jess: Our persistence rate for that class is 46 percent, although some will graduate next year and the year after. We’re not satisfied.
Laura: When students enter People’s Prep, where are they academically?
Jess: The academic profile of our average freshman student is three or four years behind grade level in English Language Arts and math. We draw from 25 middle schools, mostly district schools. All our students are Black or Hispanic and 90% are economically-disadvantaged.
Laura: How do you address those achievement gaps?
Jess: We’ve developed all our departments with that goal in mind, using well-developed instructional strategies. There is so much institutional knowledge from the instructional side. We have 380 students in the school and 33 teachers, a low ratio because all our kids take double periods of ELA and math. We also have a large arts department because I believe that art and music foster creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration.
We work really hard at cultivating great teachers. Our new teachers get a month of training throughout August and are observed and coached weekly for a full year. Once a week they meet with a master teacher to improve their instructional skills. Our Director of Curriculum and Instruction, who has tremendous energy and smarts, does teacher training for the whole school because without great teachers our students won’t get what they need.
And they need more than academics. Many of our students have suffered trauma, homelessness, violence, and have been underserved educationally. We have a large mental health department, Team Mental Health, with two psychologists and two social workers. Most schools our size would only have one social worker. We need to pay attention to academics but we need to pay just as much attention to our students’ emotional needs. They’ve suffered a degree of loss that higher-income peers couldn’t imagine.
Laura: Why do you think the students enter your school so far behind academically?
Jess: I think there are three factors. The first two are teachers and leaders: So much of what happens — or doesn’t — in kindergarten through 8th grade is about instructional quality. The third is the constraints of a system that doesn’t support great teaching and great leadership. My kids haven’t had good teachers and leaders consistently. It’s not enough to have one good teacher. You have to have consistent good teaching.
Laura: Once People’s Prep seniors graduate, how do you manage that post-high school support?
Jess: We have a very large office of College Placement. After all, we’re committed to working with any student in Newark Public Schools district who wants to attend a higher-quality high school and almost all of our kids will be first-generation college attendees. Our students meet with staff from College Placement from the day they arrive. It’s just like meeting the nurse. We have a course called “College Futures” that they take every year where we help them with soft skills, executive function, breaking down the component parts of being a successful high-schooler. In their junior year we bring in private tutors for the ACT’s. And our seniors take a college-advising class every day.
Laura: One of the criticisms of charter schools is that they don’t accept their share of students with disabilities.
Jess: Then they need to take a look at People’s Prep! Among our 380 students, 24% are classified as eligible for special education. And the percentage keeps growing.
Laura: How do you serve them in such an academically-intense environment?
Jess: We have this concept of a “pit crew.” Depending on the student, your pit crew size will be different. What makes People’s Prep special is that we treat each student as an individual. Two different kids need two different levels and kinds of supports.
Laura: Do you have students with more severe disabilities or are they mostly minor?
Jess: There’s a huge breadth of needs. At first we had everyone in general education with pull-outs for therapies but as time went on we realized that wasn’t sufficient.
Laura: Can you give me an example of a student in your school with more severe disabilities?
Jess: Sure. We have a student who is now a junior. When he came in he was non-verbal. We’re not talking selective mutism; he barely knew how to say his name, barely knew how to ask you what your name was. But we saw he has ability and his desire to engage with his peers is very real. He wanted to be part of the community. He has had such tremendous growth in three years! He’s now working on transition planning with our Child Study Team, and we have a mentor from a non-profit who is working one-on-one with him.
But, as I said, there’s a wide variety among our special needs kids, everything from autism spectrum disorders to behavioral disabilities to hearing-impaired to ADHD. We started a program called “The Cove,” which is a self-contained environment for students with intellectual disabilities and very low academic skills. But they all participate in Council.
Laura: What is “Council?”
Jess: I went to an all-women’s college and I think it’s important for students to have a single-sex environment as they’re working through being a student and a teenager. Council meets every day, and the same teacher will lead the group throughout high school.
Laura: I’m sure you also have very high-achieving kids.
Jess: Let me tell you about Jerome, Class of 2022, who entered People’s Prep with an interest in computer engineering. We set up an internship for him with a tech firm called Gadget Software. He just finished his first year of college — he got a full ride to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute! — and he stopped by to visit us on his way to Washington D.C. for a summer internship in fiber optics with the US Government.
Laura: Do you have much collaboration with Newark Public Schools?
Jess: We’ve never had anyone from the district reach out to us but we have lots of collaboration with community organizations. It’s a new priority for us: We’ve even created a new position called Community Programs Manager. Right now we have twenty-five partners across Newark, including United Way, La Casa, Teach for America, Newark Airport, and we encourage our students to take advantage of internships we set up for them, starting in their sophomore year.
We’ve also reached out to other Newark public schools, both traditional and charter. It’s part of our commitment to offering students high-quality summer placements. Part of that is our Young Women’s Advocacy Program, when we take female students for one month in the summer and teach them what advocacy looks like. We just opened it up to all Newark students: Hey, if you’re a girl in grades 9-12 and you attend a high school in Newark, come join us!