A few months ago, A. Robert Gregory appeared poised to become Newark’s new schools chief.
Gregory had risen through the ranks from teacher to principal to interim superintendent — the role he assumed in February after the previous superintendent stepped down. But when the school board chose a new district leader in May, it passed over Gregory in favor of Roger León, a rival official with strong political backing.
“I was extremely, extremely disappointed,” Gregory told Chalkbeat. “I was initially confused about what my next steps were.”
His next step, it turns out, will be leading Marion P. Thomas Charter Schools, a network of four schools founded nearly 20 years ago by Newark’s historic New Hope Baptist Church. Serving some 1,500 students, it’s about 24 times smaller than Newark Public Schools. Which makes it an unexpected move for Gregory, who built his career in traditional public schools and, by his own admission, had not stepped foot inside a charter school before this spring.
It’s also a formidable undertaking, though Gregory said he is undaunted.
Marion P. Thomas recently came under fire for turning away dozens of high-school students on the first day of school for minor uniform infractions. The negative publicity added to longstanding challenges — disappointing test scores, a high suspension rate, and many chronically absent students — that cast doubt on whether the network is fulfilling its mission to prepare students for college or the workplace, and complicate efforts to attract philanthropic support.
“This is the stuff that keeps me going,” said Gregory, whose father was a well-known Newark principal. “If I’m not solving problems, I don’t feel like I have any work. So I want this to be difficult.”
Among his early goals: promoting “restorative” discipline practices with an eye toward driving down the network’s suspension rate, which at 17 percent, during the 2016-2017 school year, was nearly three times the state average.
“When you suspend kids, you’re just prolonging the problem, not correcting it,” Gregory said. “I am not a proponent of out-of-school suspensions.”
Gregory begins as the network’s superintendent on Nov. 5.
Previously, Gregory briefly served as an assistant superintendent under Roger León after he took charge of the district in July. At the same time, Gregory was also exploring other options, including a superintendency in a suburban New Jersey district, he said.
He also met with Marion P. Thomas officials, who offered him the position earlier this month. After Gregory accepted, the board formally approved his hiring at its Oct. 22 meeting, as first reported by TAPinto Newark.
“I thought no way he would ever consider us — a person of his stature, his background, his experience,” said Greg Collins, chair of the network’s board of trustees, who called Gregory’s hire “probably the best thing we’ve ever done.”
Marion P. Thomas opened its doors in 1999 with 60 students. It was the brainchild of the late Rev. Dr. Charles E. Thomas, former pastor of New Hope — a church that is more than a century old and an anchor of Newark’s black community. (It’s also where Whitney Houston famously sang as a young girl.)
Today, with a student population that is 94 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic, the network bills itself as “the largest minority led, independently operated” charter school in New Jersey.
The network previously had schools in the city’s North and West wards, but now all four buildings are located in the Central ward. They include two lower-grade schools with science and arts themes, and one where boys and girls are taught in different classes. The high school opened three years ago with a focus on the culinary and performing arts — and is replete with a teaching kitchen and a black-box theater.
The network’s leaders said Gregory’s primary task is to raise the quality of instruction at the schools — and, as a result, to boost students’ test scores. During the 2016-17 school year, about 30 percent of the network’s students met the state’s standards on the English PARCC tests and 18 percent did so in math. On the SAT, which is used in college admissions, 35 percent of students performed well enough on the reading and writing tests to be considered ready for college-level work; just 13 percent did so in math.
Newark Public Schools outperformed the network on both SAT and PARCC tests.
In 2014, Marion P. Thomas hired an experienced charter-school administrator to revamp the network’s academic program. But the administrator, Doreen Land, died of cancer in February. Now, Gregory, who taught English and social studies in district schools and founded a district magnet school, American History High School, will lead that charge.
“Robert is the right person because of his academic background,” said Dr. Karen Thomas, the school’s co-founder, who retired as its CEO in June. “The key focus right now is academics and an academic leader who can really rally everyone around the core business, which is education.”
Gregory said he plans to conduct a full review of the network’s schools, which will involve evaluating the effectiveness of its principals and teachers. If he decides to replace any of the teachers, he will bump up against an obstacle not found in many charter schools: unionized educators. Unions, which are common among traditional public-school teachers but rare among their charter-school peers, make it harder to remove teachers from the classroom. (While Marion P. Thomas’ lower-grade teachers are part of a union, it’s high-school teachers are not.)
Another area that Gregory plans to assess is the schools’ culture — how well staff members work together, and how families and students feel about the school.
Such an assessment comes on the heels of viral cell-phone videos that showed Marion P. Thomas students idling in a park in August after they’d been turned away from the high school for not wearing belts or sporting shoes that were not completely black. And back in March, when students across the country walked out of their schools to call for stricter gun regulations, the high school suspended several students who participated in the action and barred them from attending the senior-class trip and prom. (After parents objected, the school allowed them to “earn back” attendance to the prom through good behavior, but it upheld the other punishments, according to board meeting minutes.)
The improvement efforts that Gregory has been hired to lead are not only about helping more students succeed, they are also about putting the network on firmer financial footing. Because public funding is tied to enrollment, charter schools must attract a growing number of students to keep up with rising costs or else secure private donations.
In both recruitment and fundraising, the network must compete with the city’s larger, higher-performing charter school networks — KIPP New Jersey and North Star Academy. Unlike them, Marion P. Thomas is not affiliated with national charter organizations that receive generous financial backing from wealthy donors.
“The school has not functioned based on large philanthropic support — it’s really been supported by our own community,” said Karen Thomas, adding that New Hope Baptist Church helped cover the network’s startup costs.
At a January board meeting, Marion P. Thomas’s marketing director said student recruitment had grown more difficult as parents “are becoming savvier” and comparing different charter schools’ results, according to board minutes. At a March board meeting, officials said that “deep staff cuts” had been made in response to budget constraints.
Collins, the board chair, said that raising student test scores and highlighting successful alumni will help enhance the network’s reputation — and bring in more potential donors.
“Part of the mission of Robert Gregory,” he said, “is to improve the academics, improve the lives of these children, so that we can create a much more attractive story.”