The Transition: John King (NJ ’95) Reflects on Journey from Charter to Public Schools

Truman
Scholars Charting a New Course in Education

Part
2: The Transition: John King Reflects on Journey from Charter to Public Schools

This
piece is the second in a series. See also “Part
1: The Founders: Building Schools with No Excuses.”

By Christopher Sopher (VA ‘10)

kingDr. John King has moved from successful charter school founder to
national charter network director to Senior Deputy Commissioner of New York’s
State Department of Education. We interviewed him about his experiences,
lessons learned, and advice for Trumans interested in education.

John
King (NJ ’95)
is the Senior
Deputy Commissioner for P-12 education at the New York State Department of
Education. Prior to joining the state in September, 2009, he was Managing
Director at Uncommon Schools, a non-profit charter school network. In 1999, he
co-founded Roxbury Prep, a middle school charter serving low-income students in
urban Boston. Roxbury has been frequently recognized as one of the
top-performing urban middle schools in Massachusetts.

What’s
your story from the Truman to where you are now?

I
taught in New York City schools at Teacher’s College, and then taught in Puerto
Rico and at a private school, and then went back to Boston to teach at City on
a Hill Charter School, which was one of the first generation of charters in the
country. I taught high school history. One of the things that struck me was how
many of our students were coming to us in 9th grade with 6th grade math and
reading skills. One of our challenges was that we tried to get students
prepared for college by 12th grade, but they were coming from so far behind,
they were spending a ton of time and energy on remediation.

I
met Evan Rudall, who cofounded Roxbury Prep with me, through college friends …
Those conversations evolved into the decision to start the school together. One
of the things that drew me to it was the opportunity to start younger, get
students in middle school so we could get them the skills they needed to be on
track, so that by the time the students at Roxbury Prep would get to 9th grade,
they would be ready to do college prep work. 

What
interested you in teaching in the first place?

I
think it was a combination of factors. Both my parents were teachers. They both
passed away when I was a kid, and for me teachers made all the difference in my
own experience. My mom passed when I was eight, and my father was quite ill and
passed away when I was 12.

During
that period, I had extraordinary teachers. I had a teacher named Mr. Osterweil,
who was my fourth, fifth and sixth grade teacher. He was a phenomenal teacher,
and really became a father figure to me. His class was rigorous, engaging,
incredibly supportive environment. He created an environment that was both
challenging and supportive.

I
went to Mark Twain Junior High School in Coney Island, and had an amazing
seventh grade social studies teacher, who was so talented at creating a
classroom environment that was both academically challenging and also an
incredibly safe and supportive learning environment. Between them, I really saw
the difference teachers could make, because they made the difference for me
during what was really a difficult period of my life.

So
when I was in college and got involved in different public service activities,
and involved working with young people, I fell in love with the work, because I
could see how being a teacher could help me try to create for other kids what
they created for me.

Was
that kind of classroom environment a part of the plan at Roxbury Prep? 

Exactly.
That’s what I tried to build as a teacher myself, and it’s what we tried to
build into the culture of Roxbury Prep. An academically rigorous school that would
prepare students for college, challenge them to do a lot of writing and a lot
of thinking, but also in environments that were joyful and engaging, and allow
students to be creative and really to see the joy in learning.

What
were the steps you had to take to create that environment
?

I
think rigor is an important starting place. First, making sure teachers have a
very clear understanding of what students know and are able to do, and are
constantly pushing students to do more and to tackle more challenging work.

Second,
having teachers plan with students at the center and trying to figure out: what
will the students write; what will I ask them to read; how am I going to ensure
when we’re discussing that every student is thinking? It’s small things, like,
when you ask a question to the class, asking everyone to write down their
answer before calling on a student, so you make sure every student in the room
has taken time to think about the answer. Small things to big things like
figuring out, at the end of every unit, how do you know that students have
really mastered the content?

When
you were starting Roxbury in 1999, it was still quite early in the charter
movement nationally. What was it like to be on the front of that movement as it
was beginning to take shape?

We
had a couple really strong models. Evan Rudall, who cofounded Roxbury Prep with
me, and is now the CEO of Uncommon Schools, had done a principal internship at
the Timilty School, which was at the time the strongest of the Boston middle
schools. So a number of practices—around teacher planning and collaboration,
school culture, integrating a structured learning environment—were lessons that
we took from them.

We
also worked with Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem, which is a high-performing
school that sends students on to college at a very high rate, with students who
are mostly low-income students of color. She was a mentor to us as we were
doing the planning for Roxbury Prep. We were also fortunate to recruit a really
great list of founding teachers, some of whom are still at Roxbury Prep. They
helped us figure out how to shape a rigorous and engaging school culture. 

What
was the community’s —parents’, teachers’, others’—reaction to the school?

Early
on there was some apprehension about our ability to build a college prep school
that was open to all students. There were certainly schools in Boston that
achieved at high levels, but they were often schools that had screening of
students and that you had to test into. So there was skepticism in some corners
that you could build a school that could be academically rigorous to prepare
students for college, but that took any student who applied. 

That
first set of parents was really taking a big risk. I remember doing some of the
meetings with parents in a local library, because we didn’t have a building
yet, or teachers yet, and we were just laying out a vision of what we hoped the
school would look like. I think they saw the opportunities that could be
possible for their children if they got a college prep middle school education
that put them on the right trajectory. 

Where
do you see the charter movement going now?

I
think there are three categories of charter schools now. There’s a set of very
high performing schools, many of which are serving very high-need student
populations, that are proving pretty decisively that the achievement gap can be
closed, and that low-income students can achieve at very high levels in strong
environments. You’ve got Uncommon Schools and KIPP and Achievement First
producing consistently outstanding student outcomes.

On
the other side of the spectrum, you’ve got charters across the country that are
struggling. They have serious governance issues and have serious educational
weaknesses. State charter authorizers need to do a better job closing those
schools. 

Charters
ought to be consistently high-performing. To get there, authorizers need to
close the low performers, and the schools in the middle have to see that states
and charter authorizers are serious about performance. It’s a crossroads moment
for the charter sector. 

Some
scholars have suggested that one of the dangers in charters growing so quickly
is that they become a large bureaucracy that’s functionally similar to the
existing public school system. Do you share that concern?

Well,
you have charter management organizations like KIPP and Achievement First and
Uncommon and Aspire, thinking about how best to create a network of
high-performing schools. In many ways, they could be a model for how you build
high-performing urban districts

On
the other hand, I think charters have not done as good a job as they could have
across the country meeting unmet needs. For example, we have a huge population
of English Language Learners, in New York and around the country, and there
have not been as many charters started for ELLs as one would hope. There
haven’t been many charters for over-age, under-credit students as one would
hope. There’s opportunity in the coming years for the sector to try and tackle
some of the biggest challenges that our urban school systems face.

Tell
me a little bit about the work you’re doing now for the New York State
Department of Education
.

One
of the biggest projects we’ve had over the last 14 months is Race to the Top
applications. We were unsuccessful in Round 1, but we were the second highest scoring
state in Round 2 and are very excited to win. So now we get to the work of
implementation of things we committed to in Race to the Top. That includes
adopting the Common Core Standards, working to build a new assessment system,
dramatically improving our state data system … trying to get teacher
evaluations that are much more differentiated.

We’ve
got a full plate of different initiatives.

Several
Trumans involved in charter schools have said they’ve found that the changes
they believe in are only fully possible at the charter level. As you’ve
transitioned into public education from running charters, how do you think
about the challenge of creating change in the public system?

In
many ways, Race to the Top illustrates that it is possible to achieve broad-scale
change in a large system.

I
do think it’s possible to have change in the public system, but it’s slower.
I’m happy to have had the experience of being involved at the school and
network level in the charter sector, where I could move quickly on the changes
I wanted to see. Today I move more moderately, but I do think the scale of
impact is pretty extraordinary. We’re got roughly 3.1 million school kids in
New York State. If we can change how teachers and principals think about their
work, and how they’re evaluated and supported, and impact more than 3 million
kids, that’s a huge contribution.

So
there’s a tradeoff to the speed and scale. But that’s changing … there’s a
tremendous sense of urgency in the sector that’s making it possible to achieve
change more quickly.

What
do you see as the “inflection points” where Trumans can enter who
want to contribute to and learn about improving education?

It’s
a great moment to be a person interested in education. There are interesting
things going on at every level. It’s the kind of time where I’m talking to
people early in their career, and I tell them that it’s really a question of
what you’ll be happy doing.  Would you be
happy in the classroom? Would you be happy at the Department of Ed? Would you
be happy building a longitudinal data system for New York? It’s about the
intersection of where you can be most useful and what you enjoy the most.

Chris Sopher (VA ’10)
is a senior in his last semester at the University of North Carolina at Chapel
Hill, where he studies public policy.

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