Charter and district teachers learn side by side in Newark

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Teachers became students, as Newark district schoolteachers — who struggle getting students to read a challenging book and truly understand it — got tips from charter school colleagues at a workshop on how to grab kids’ attention and break it all down.

Steve Chiger, director of literacy for Uncommon Schools’ North Star Academy in Newark, led teachers through exercises designed to assist and motivate kids confronted by complex reading assignments. They’re Northstar techniques that Benjamin Franklin Elementary School teacher Isabel Abreu will certainly use it in her classroom.

“Put down your iPhone, that you’re allowed to bring to school, and let’s explore this text — so hearing them say that it is possible, that it is something that is doable, to bring into the classroom, is encouraging,” Abreu said.

Northstar operates 13 out of the 17 charter schools in Newark — a city whose beleaguered public school system just emerged from state control. One in three Newark kids attends a charter school, and last year Newark charters outperformed district schools on PARCC scores in English language arts and math proficiency.

“This is one of the ways we’re able to really live that idea of we need to share and collaborate in the best interests of our kids,” said Crystal McQeen-Taylor, senior director of external impact at Uncommon Schools.

“Watch what happens. They get credit for saying that they helped us, and we get credit for saying we followed a strategy that, in fact, worked,” said Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger Leon. “The whole idea that the school district can become better because of others is important. And others I define very, very broadly.”

Newark’s teachers union questioned the workshop’s timing, noting it comes as the state takes another look at how charters operate. New Jersey’s 1995 charter school law directed them to “ … offer the potential to improve pupil learning … ” and to “ … encourage the use of different and innovative learning methods.” But the union claims charters often benefit from corporate largesse, even as New Jersey school districts battle for budget dollars and resources and face higher hurdles.

“For instance, special needs students or students who speak a separate language and a different language? Maybe if they were accepting those students, maybe if they were teaching in classrooms with 30 and 33 students without an aide, maybe then we could learn something from them,” said Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon.

Politics notwithstanding, Abreu welcomed this chance to swap teaching strategies.

“I think we feel separated, at times, from being in public schools and charter schools. I just think it really bridges that gap, and I think we’re all on the same team, right? We are here for the education of children,” said Abreu.

The state’s currently re-examining its charter school regulations. Workshops likes these show that charters can be incubators for ideas and techniques that work for kids in every classroom.