With a new leader and new management, a Newark charter school network attempts a comeback

Faced with acute academic and discipline problems, one of Newark’s oldest charter school networks is getting a top-to-bottom makeover.

Marion P. Thomas Charter School, which launched 20 years ago with the help of a Newark church, today struggles with low test scores, a suspension rate far above the state average, and chronic teacher turnover. Nearly 90% of its teachers have taught in the network for less than three years. 

In response, the network is rolling out a slew of major changes — everything from what students are taught, to how misbehavior is handled, and who is managing the schools’ operations. But even as the overhaul is designed to transform Marion P. Thomas from a floundering group of mom-and-pop charter schools into a high-performing charter network, it is being led by a veteran of Newark’s traditional schools, A. Robert Gregory.

In his campaign to revamp the network, Gregory has imported practices and educators from the Newark school district, where he was previously a principal and top official. He recruited Newark Public Schools principals to take over Marion P. Thomas’ struggling high school and serve as the network’s chief of staff, and he created school leadership teams modeled after ones used in the district — even as Newark’s new superintendent, Roger León, dismantles those very teams.

At the same time, Gregory has looked to other charter schools for inspiration. He and officials attended trainings led by the Achievement First charter network, and he is introducing detailed teaching guides — a common practice at charter schools that prize standardization and consistency across classrooms.

A. Robert Gregory, a Newark Public Schools veteran, is leading the overhaul of Marion P. Thomas Charter School. (Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat)

Most significantly, Marion P. Thomas recently hired an outside group to manage its finances and operations, and oversee its academic program. The organization, BRICK Education Network, is a Newark nonprofit that previously managed two district schools and now runs two charter schools of its own. The use of a “charter management organization” to run multiple schools in the same network is another practice that Marion P. Thomas is borrowing from well-regarded charter networks like Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, and KIPP.

“We are not reinventing the wheel here,” said Gregory, who was in the running to become Newark’s superintendent before León was chosen. “We are literally looking at practices that other districts or networks use and that get them results — and we’re codifying them, making them our own, and implementing them.”

BRICK, which was formed in 2010 by a group of Newark teachers, has helped Marion P. Thomas for the past few years with things like coaching principals and hiring teachers. But in April, the network’s board of trustees voted to hand over management of its three schools to BRICK. In exchange for its services, BRICK will be paid 9% of the public funds that Marion P. Thomas receives.

Earlier this year, BRICK won a $10.5 million federal grant to help improve Marion P. Thomas’ schools and create new schools of its own, including two scheduled to open in Buffalo, New York, in 2021. In its grant application, BRICK described Marion P. Thomas as a “chronically underperforming charter network” that has “underserved” its 1,750 students in preschool to 12th grade.

Marion P. Thomas’ high school, which educates about 600 students, previously did not offer any Advanced Placement courses or math classes beyond geometry, and only about half its graduates enrolled in college — far below the state average, according to the application. Laying out a plan to provide more rigorous classes, BRICK’s application set a goal for 100% of students to enroll in college or a trade school or enter the armed forces.

As evidence that it can orchestrate such improvements, BRICK pointed to its work with the two Newark district schools, Avon and Peshine, whose test scores rose during the time BRICK supported them.

“Transformation is our bread and butter,” said Dominique Lee, BRICK’s CEO, in an interview. “That’s what we know and that’s what we do well.”

Beginning last year, Lee and other BRICK leaders joined Gregory in crafting the improvement plan for Marion P. Thomas. Now, the organization is helping him put it into action.

Dominique Lee is CEO of the BRICK Education Network. (Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat)

BRICK has assisted Gregory in hiring a new corps of vice principals with specialized roles overseeing school culture or specific subjects, such as math or English. A new position of “school operations manager” was also created to handle things like enrollment and facilities, so principals can focus on academics. (Back in the Newark school district, León recently abolished that position and reduced the number of vice principals.) 

BRICK is also creating a new curriculum and teaching guides, along with assessments to test whether students are learning the material. Previously, most teachers created their own classroom materials, which Gregory said did not always challenge students intellectually. Gregory said he hopes the new resources and administrators will lighten the load on teachers — even though he knows some may bristle at the added oversight.

“Teachers don’t necessarily like teaching scripted plans,” he said. “But we know that when we don’t do that kind of stuff, then we have curriculum that’s all over the place, which leads to inconsistent student outcomes.”

The network is also adding new clubs and sports teams, along with new AP classes and a program beginning next spring that will allow high schoolers to take classes at Rutgers University-Newark. And all kindergarten through third-grade classes will now have two teachers instead of one.

Meanwhile, Gregory is working to revamp the atmosphere and approach to discipline at the schools. A new BRICK employee (recruited from Newark Public Schools) will help the network adopt “restorative” practices meant to help students reflect on their mistakes and make amends. The goal is to reduce suspensions, which were issued to about one in five Marion P. Thomas students in the 2017-18 school year.

“It was somewhat criminal the amount of kids that were getting suspended,” Gregory said. (The high school caused an uproar last year when it turned away dozens of students on the first day of classes because they were missing parts of their uniform.)

The network has also eliminated a number of positions, including central-office staffers whose work BRICK will now handle. The layoffs have allowed Marion P. Thomas to invest in the new administrators and extracurricular programs, while reducing inefficiencies, said Gregory.

“A lot of our issues were self-inflicted,” he said. “They were the result of a broken system.”

On Monday, some 350 educators and staffers gathered for a kickoff event to celebrate the launch of BRICK’s new management organization. They came from the groups BRICK now oversees: Marion P. Thomas, BRICK’s two Achieve Charter Schools, and the South Ward Children’s Alliance, a network of agencies that provide social services to students and families in that impoverished part of the city.

Most of the attendees, including teachers and administrators, were people of color — a point of pride for BRICK and Marion P. Thomas, where nearly all the students are black or Hispanic. Everyone wore red shirts emblazoned with the event’s theme: “One mission, many faces, 2,768 reasons why!”, a reference to the number of students in BRICK-managed schools.

Rev. Vincent Rouse, chair of Marion P. Thomas’ board, told the group that BRICK’s African-American leadership will carry on the tradition of Marion P. Thomas, which was formed with the backing of Newark’s New Hope Baptist Church. Gregory said BRICK will help strengthen the network as it wages “war against intergenerational poverty.” Lee urged the group to embrace the changes, even as challenges inevitably will arise.

“I encourage all of us in this room to show up,” he said, “keep an open door, and let’s achieve this together.”

Afterwards, the teachers headed to a full day of workshops — the beginning of two weeks of training before classes resume next month.

Outside one of the sessions, Shantaya Lewis, a third-grade teacher at Marion P. Thomas, said she was “a little apprehensive” when she heard the network was getting new management. But when she learned about all the new vice principals and the pre-made teaching materials, she decided that the changes would ease the burden on teachers and help them be successful.

“Everything is being done intentionally now and a lot of the pressure has been taken off of us,” she said. “That makes a huge difference.”