Getting a Kid From Newark to Oberlin: A pioneer in the charter-school movement on what the best teachers are doing now

Norman Atkins

When I tell people that I’m the founder of Uncommon Schools, a network of high-performing charter schools for low-income children, started in 1997, I often hear a skeptical response: “Admirable what you’re trying, but you’re cherry-picking your students. The average poor kid is doomed, right?”
I know a second grader–let’s call him Hosea–who would seem to have drawn a doomed hand, born into the wrong ZIP Code in Newark, N.J., to a teen mom and an absent father. When his grandmother attended public school here in the 1970s, the district was dysfunctional and corrupt; by the 1990s, when his mom was in school, the state had “taken over,” but the result was the same: abysmal test scores and sad outcomes. According to skeptics, Hosea has about a 1% chance of graduating from college.
But please don’t tell any of this to Hosea! At 7:45 on a recent morning, he started the day singing the Oberlin College cheer. At North Star Academy’s elementary school (which opened four years ago as part of our network), he sat with 225 other first, second and third graders in a giant circle, hands folded, backs straight, focused laser-like on their teacher, Julie Jackson.