Since establishing its first school in Newark, N.J. in 1997, Uncommon Schools has expanded to five cities. Now a charter management organization, Uncommon Schools operates 38 schools in three states. It serves nearly 5,000 students at 20 schools throughout New York City. In the future, Uncommon plans to grow to 46 schools serving 16,000 students in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.
The organization expects each of the schools to run on public dollars once at full enrollment, but private funds help—and are a particularly crucial investment during the early years. Last year, private funders accounted for 9 percent of Uncommon’s total operating budget, including $2.5 million raised specifically for the New York City schools. Uncommon’s first New York City charter high school graduated its first class in June 2013.
“Today is an incredible day in the history of our school,” Lamont Sadler, a senior at Uncommon Charter High School in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, said to the crowd of 800 cheering students and parents who had gathered in the school’s auditorium for its first annual Senior Signing Day in late May.
To the tune of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin,’” each of the high school’s 28 graduating seniors bounded into the auditorium to declare where she or he planned to spend the next four years of their lives. All of the 28 students had been accepted into four-year colleges. More than half were the first in their families to go to college. Come September, half the class will attend a private college, one-third will attend a college within the State University of New York, and four will attend a college within the City University of New York.
“We’ve been waiting for this moment since the school opened in 2009. This is a defining moment in the lives of every single person in this room,” said Maya Roth Bisignano, the school’s founding principal. Students from nearby middle schools within the Uncommon Schools network sat in the audience, each wearing their school’s uniform. “You’re creating a legacy that thousands will continue to follow.”
The organization and its supporters cite Uncommon’s unique culture as essential to its success. Key aspects of that culture are a longer school day, with double-periods for math and reading and writing, and an extended school year. The organization also provides each school with a director of operations so that principals can focus exclusively on curriculum and teacher development.
Uncommon’s teacher development and coaching programs are intensive. Staff are required to attend a three-week professional development period during the month of August, and during the school year, teachers are regularly observed by their instructional supervisors and coached on their lesson plans, teaching techniques, and use of data to guide their instruction.
The organization urges students and their families, from kindergarten on, to focus on college and work to build “college knowledge.” Students are assigned advisories named after individual colleges and students participate in lectures and seminars, complete senior thesis projects, and meet with teachers during appointed office hours. Uncommon Schools also cultivates an extensive parent buy-in: the school asks each family to sign a contract outlining their active and willing participation.
Most of the high school’s entering ninth graders come from Uncommon’s middle schools, which share the high school’s culture. Brigid Ganley, Uncommon’s director of development, notes that when students enroll in fifth grade, most of them are already two to four years behind in math. “In those early years is where the bulk of the work to catch them up occurs, so that by the time they’re in high school and taking AP courses, we’ve closed the achievement gap,” Ganley said.
Barbara Martinez, Uncommon’s chief external officer, says offering those AP and other advanced classes helps prepare students for college, with many enrolling in college with a fair number of credits already under their belts. The school offers advanced and rigorous coursework to all its students, who, except for math classes, are grouped heterogeneously. Despite its small size, in 2012-2013, Uncommon offered five Advanced Placement classes and eight of the 28 seniors enrolled in AP Calculus. As it grows in size, the school plans to offer additional courses.
To determine enrollment, Uncommon utilizes a random public lottery, giving preference to students who live within the district, though residents in surrounding neighborhoods can also apply. Currently, 92 percent of the 321 students live in Brooklyn. More than eighty-percent qualify for free and reduced-price lunches; 70 percent are African-American, 29 percent are Hispanic, and 1 percent are Asian. The school will eventually accommodate 800 students from ninth to twelfth grade.
Back in August of 2009, the first cohort of 39 students from Uncommon’s Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School began their freshman year at Uncommon Charter High School. In the four years since, the graduating class was reduced by 11, with three of the students expected to graduate with the class of 2013.
Ensuring Uncommon alumni graduate from college is a constant emphasis. “Getting students into college is the low bar—we’re pretty good at that already,” said Martinez. “Ensuring they finish—that’s the goal.” To that end, the organization recently hired a Director of College Completion to assist all its schools.
Uncommon Charter High School is beating the odds: in 2012, its students outperformed their peers in New York City and New York State on Regents exams by an average of 22 percentage points. That year, the class of 2013 also outperformed white peers on the math and writing sections of the SAT.
Back in the auditorium, students chanted, over and over again: “Be uncommon. Change history.”
“As a parent, I believe in their mission,” said Evelyn Alvarez. Her son, Justin Colon, will attend Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. “Since the fifth grade, the school has taught them that knowledge is power and that it’s going to take them far, that they’re going to get into college.”
Colon, 18, plans to study economics and wants to work at the Federal Reserve someday. He realizes that a lot is riding on the success of his classmates.
“If you see what the outcome is, it gives you something to reach for,” he said of the younger students seated in the audience. “We’re the founding class. We have to act as role models they can look up to so they can push themselves and inspire themselves to be great.”
His classmate, Kevin Ozoria, will attend Dartmouth University, where he plans to study engineering. Ozoria, 18, will be the first in his family to go to college. His mother works as a cook in a daycare center and his father works in a bakery.
“The whole time, we’ve been hearing about college since the fifth grade,” said Ozoria. “At first, it was this vague concept that was just our goal. And now we’ve finally reached it.”