Despite Low Grad Rate in Trenton Public Schools, City Charter to See All Seniors Graduate
Tom Ciccone | The Times of Trenton
TRENTON — The city’s public schools saw a graduation rate as low as 48 percent last year, but at one charter school this year, officials expect not only to graduate every 12th-grade student, but also to see all 17 go on to four-year colleges.
“There’s no secret to what we do,” said Graig Weiss, intermediate school principal for Foundation Academies. “It’s really, really hard work.
“We will not make any excuses for why our students do not and will not achieve, because we believe in setting high expectations for our kids, both behaviorally and academically. And when you set high expectations for kids, they absolutely rise to the challenge, and our students are proof of that, year after year,” he said.
The charter school was founded in 2007 with just a middle school handling about 100 children in fifth and sixth grades, Weiss said. More grade levels have been added every year.
Now, seven years later, there is a high school — Foundation Collegiate Academy — and an intermediate school, with a total of 531 students. Officials plan for still more growth with the addition of a K-second grade primary school in August, bringing 268 more school-children.
“We’re really excited to be opening up the kindergarten next year because, historically, we started out as a middle school, and when we are getting students in middle school, a lot of students are already several grade levels below where they should be for a typical fifth-grader, and so with a lot of them we’re playing catch-up,” Weiss said.
In last year’s NJASK standardized testing results for eighth grade, students at Foundation Intermediate scored well above the average for Trenton and other urban schools in literacy, science and math.
The numbers were striking. For math, students at Foundation scored 66 percent proficient, compared with 23 percent for Trenton students in general. And the statewide average for that subject, 69 percent proficient, was only a few points higher than what Foundation has achieved.
Though the school is not able to cherry-pick the best students from among the public school population, the charter manages to coax good results out of most grade levels, said Weiss, whose intermediate school handles students from 3rd through 5th grades.
Foundation does it with an emphasis on measuring results, teacher responsibility, and a schoolwide “no excuses mantra,” he said.
Weiss has worked at Foundation for five years and in July will move from his position as managing director of the intermediate and middle school campuses to become CEO.
According to Weiss, Foundation differs from other public schools in numerous ways.
Foundation students have a longer day, attending school from 7:15 a.m. to 4 p.m. — 8 hours and 45 minutes — with an additional hour for extra help or detention.
By contrast, the average public school day is about 6½ hours long. The school year at Foundation is also longer, with 200 school days; the minimum required at public schools in New Jersey is 180 days.
Earlier this year, Gov. Chris Christie said a school day and a longer school year in New Jersey would benefit all students, helping them perform better and become more competitive. The governor said he was working on a proposal with state Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf for presentation soon.
Weiss said the value of having children spend more time in school is very clear.
“Obviously, the more time we have with the kids, the more we can do to ensure that, you know, they’re learning what they need to do to prepare for college,” he said. “We have both a longer school day and a longer school year in order to accomplish those very things.”
Charter schools are similar to public schools in that they receive state funding, but they are afforded more freedom to develop their own educational approach. Teachers at charter schools do not have to meet the same qualifications as public school teachers.
Foundation’s high school students have a strong focus on moving toward higher education, Principal Nicole Falconer said.
Juniors and seniors leave the campus at noon on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to take community college classes, for which they receive college credit.
“College is definitely what we do at Foundation Academy, and we’re seeing it come to fruition, we’re seeing it come alive,” Falconer said.
The high school will have its first graduating class this year, and according to Falconer, all students have been accepted into higher education programs, with some awarded scholarships as high as $20,000.
The high school is very tech-oriented, Falconer said. Sophomores get their own e-book readers for school use, every classroom uses an electronic whiteboard and teachers are equipped with laptops, smart phones and personal websites to assist their teaching.
The Foundation intermediate and middle grade levels also put a special emphasis on individual achievement, focusing on each student’s strengths and weaknesses and adjusting their curricula accordingly. Much of this, Weiss said, is done through rigorous data gathering on students throughout the school year.
“When a teacher says, ‘Well, I taught it,’ we want to be able to say, ‘OK, you taught it, but did the kids learn it, and where is the proof that the students learned that material?’” Weiss said. “The data allows us to meet the students exactly where they’re at and push them forward.”
Teachers at the intermediate school, instead of teaching out of textbooks, use a “teacher resource room” where they can customize their teaching materials to fit the needs of their students, Weiss said.
Textbooks are still used in the high school, though, Falconer said.
Reading skills are a very important focus at Foundation’s intermediate campus, in particular, where students will spend three hours of their day in various reading and writing classes.
The school uses a “guided reading” class where students of varying levels of reading comprehension are split into different groups and assigned different books that will challenge their skill level.
Lisa Pope is a writing teacher at the intermediate school. Pope said that she was struck by Foundation’s across-the-board commitment to getting its students into higher education and the freedom she’s given with her teaching.
“What I like most about the school is the commitment we have to meeting students at their individual levels,” Pope wrote in an email interview. “I’m not ‘kept in a box’ as a teacher; I am free to be creative and innovative.”
Weiss said he’s excited for what the future holds for Foundation Academies, even though the hard work will continue.
“We do it because we love our kids and we want to see them be successful and have opportunities that the same kids in West Windsor or Princeton have. Those are the opportunities that students in Trenton absolutely deserve,” Weiss said.