“The key is a great team of committed professionals — even in the midst of a pandemic, even in the midst of uncertainty— so that our scholars thrive and succeed.” That’s Dr. Christy Oliver-Hawley, the new Head of Schools for Newark’s University Heights Charter School (UHCS) as she takes over three schools with 926 pre-K-8th grade students in the Central Ward. Her recent appointment is a culmination of both UHCS’s national search for a leader who can steer the school towards academic excellence and Dr. Oliver’s own story, one of a young girl in Jersey City rising to her own academic heights.
Dr. Oliver’s first day at UHCS was Friday and we spoke on Monday. Here is a condensed version of our conversation.
Laura: Where did you grow up?
Dr. Oliver: I grew up in Jersey City in an environment suffused with education because my mother was a guidance counselor in the Jersey City Public Schools district. I heard the work, I saw the work, and she inspired me to go into education after I graduated from the Academy of St. Aloysius, a parochial school that fostered a great sense of academic rigor.
Laura: So your family exercised school choice.
Dr. Oliver: Absolutely! My family was able to make that choice and I thrived there. This prepared me for Georgetown University where I fell in love with the French language. I was enrolled in the School of Foreign Service, which was actually terrific preparation for school leadership: You can’t create great teams without understanding diplomacy. After all, each school has its own culture and each district has different cultural norms.
Laura: What did you do after Georgetown?
Dr. Oliver: I accepted a job as a French immersion teacher in East Orange Public Schools. That was in 1997, which was a very formative time for me — I got my Master’s and was voted Teacher of the Year two years later. Then I was promoted to Whole School Reform Facilitator, a kind of turn-around specialist.
Laura: That’s a hard hill to climb, turning around a struggling school.
Dr. Oliver: Yes, it is. But we were successful because of the model we chose, Success for All, in collaboration with Columbia University. We drilled down on professional development for teachers, outreach to parents, and a conviction that all children can succeed when we discover how the child thrives. Our school leaders and teachers were excellent and we were able to establish positive, collaborative, constructive relationships. And my diplomacy background was helpful too!
Laura: What was your next step?
Dr. Oliver: After we completed the turnaround in 2001 I was appointed a vice principal in East Orange, which involved a fair bit of crisis management. Then I took a position as principal in Plainfield, five years at one school and a year in another. That was an experience! When I first got to Plainfield the school was in the middle of a construction project so we were in a temporary site. I remember walking through the new site wearing a hard hat! That’s where I started my doctoral work.
Laura: And you stayed in Plainfield for a while.
Dr. Oliver: Yes, then I moved to Irvington for my first opportunity to work in a Central Office: I was Director of Government Programs — you know, in charge of federal and state grants like Title 1, 2, and 3, etc. and then the ARRA federal funds from the Great Recession.
Laura: That sounds daunting.
Dr. Oliver: It was actually really exciting. I was able to use those funds to start an iPad and smartboard program to increase the district’s commitment to technology. We were starting to bridge the digital divide way ahead of everyone. I finished my dissertation during that time, which focused on parental involvement in turning around schools.
Dr. Oliver: I felt I needed more leadership opportunities so I took a position in Hillside as a kind of assistant superintendent: a Director of Curriculum and Instruction. I was responsible for all staff, for budgets, for updating course content standards, for filling in for the superintendent when he was out. And then I got to go full circle and return to Jersey City as Affirmative Action Officer for the city school district, concentrating on equity, diversity, and opportunity issues.
Laura: And here you are in Newark.
Dr. Oliver: When this opportunity came I couldn’t pass it up.
Laura: This is your first time in a public charter school. How do you feel about that?
Dr. Oliver: Yes, it’s my first time, but I am eager to offer choice to Newark families — just like I had — and get things done in an expeditious way. UHCS is directly connected to Bethany Baptist Church; in fact, Church leaders were original founders and we even share facilities. Just like the Church, UHCS is part of the community, part of the culture.
Laura: You chose quite the moment to begin your superintendency!
Dr. Oliver: Well, I knew what I was getting into. The Board was very transparent with me.
Laura: How do you plan to handle education during a pandemic?
Dr. Oliver: I’m very proud that we’ve completely closed the digital divide. We have chromebooks already for every student pre-K-8th grade and our teachers surveyed every household checking for broadband internet access. We have provided a hotspot for every student who needs one. So every child will have access to the technology needed for remote instruction.
Meanwhile, we’ve created a hybrid model that mirrors Governor Murphy’s stages. September 8th-18th will be fully remote for all students. On September 21st we’ll move to our hybrid plan. Let’s say each class is 20 children, so we’ll divide them into two cohorts of 10 children. Monday and Tuesday the first group will come in for four hours, with the afternoons for live-streamed instruction that students can access anytime. Thursday and Friday the second group will come in, following the first group’s schedule, and Wednesday is for deep-cleaning. On the days each group is home they’ll have a full day of remote instruction.
We are offering more in-school time for our special needs students. Our Special Services Director is offering all families the option of coming in four days per week so we can be certain our programming is in compliance.
Laura: And hopefully we’ll one day have our children in school five days a week.
Dr. Oliver: That can’t happen soon enough! Laura, I’ve lived in Newark, volunteered in Newark, worshipped in Newark. Now I get to serve Newark’s budding scholars. I can use my experience as a French teacher, as a Director of Curriculum and Instruction, as a fiscal coordinator, as a professional development leader, as an educational strategist, even as a diplomat. It all comes together at UHCS because that’s what our scholars need and what our scholars deserve.