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News2nd June 2014

Following the North Star to University

In the last of three blogs on her trip to America, ARK Kings Academy’s Katie Marshall sees how the organisation Uncommon Schools prepares students from one of America’s most deprived cities for a successful start at university.

A happy place to learn

We had travelled to the states to learn from the expert educators at America’s Uncommon Schools network. Our journey has taken us from upstate New York to downtown Newark, New Jersey, an area known more for its high crime rate than for its educational excellence.

While previous sessions with Uncommon teachers and leaders had us concentrating on improving our oral communications and teaching skills, today’s challenge was a written one.

We were asked to compose one ‘beautiful sentence’ about our visit to Uncommon’s North Star Academy Charter School of Newark. While the city of Newark may never be known for its beauty, my articulate and insightful colleagues found themselves quickly and easily sharing written impressions of a school that captured their imaginations:

“Thanks for sharing the beautiful balance of joy, rigour and culture.”

“Respect and gratitude to Principal Juliana Worrell and her inspiring team at North Star, transforming lives with rigour and joy.”

“Where children are nurtured and motivated in their every second and achieve so much.”

It’s not a coincidence that ‘joy’ and ‘rigour’ are concepts that stand out in the sentences above. While visiting the school, I was struck by the caring relationships between teachers and students and between students themselves.

This supportive environment was achieved while still achieving an extremely academic environment with impeccable routines and incredibly high standards. As a result, the children at North Star’s West Side Park campus are high-performing and happy, and the school itself has an atmosphere that leaves visitors with a warm fuzzy feeling inside!

University ready

Later on in the North Star High School across town, we saw in person, and through educational statistics, that the outstanding work of Uncommon teachers and staff continues as children go from Elementary (Primary) to High School (Secondary).

North Star is able to boast an 85% university graduation rate, which is more than double what would usually be expected for students in this context. We’d already witnessed the culture of university- readiness when we had previously visited Troy Prep, so to discover how that evolves into a practical transition programme for high school students was a real eye-opener. Not only does North Star prepare its students for university life through explicit teaching of the academic, social and financial skills required, staff also continue to support their students after they start university by arranging to visit them on campus!

I’m not sure how some of our students back home at ARK Kings would react if we turned up to surprise them at university, but I’m certain that these visits would not only be practical in helping students to navigate a challenging new environment, but also serve as an outward sign of the caring ethos created by the staff.

If there’s one thing I learned from visiting these Uncommon Schools, it’s that our expectations as teachers are just as important as the aspirations students have for themselves. I’d heard about the wonderful work in advance of my visits, and I remember thinking things like ‘That can’t possibly work!’ and ‘How do they get kids to do that?’ But the teachers and staff at Uncommon proved to me that if you set the bar high enough, students will reach it.


Read more about Katie Marshall’s trip to Uncommon schools:

Part 1: Uncommon lessons from America

Part 2: An Uncommon way of training