A ‘Founders’ Excerpt: How 4 Visionary Entrepreneurs Joined Forces to Launch Uncommon Schools
This is an excerpt from the new Richard Whitmire book The Founders: Inside the Revolution to Invent (and Reinvent) America’s Best Charter Schools. See more excerpts at The 74; watch all the videos, download the book and explore the Founders Oral History at The74Million.org/TheFounders.
For Atkins, changing schools was key — but putting philanthropy dollars into traditional public schools made no sense. After all, the Annenberg Foundation had invested $500 million in traditional public schools and was left with nothing to show for the investment.
Atkins moved his family to New Jersey, picked out Newark, clearly a needy city, and searched for a way to open a school. “I was just walking around for two years, literally telling everyone I wanted to start a school. I had no idea what I was saying.” But that all suddenly changed when then-governor Christine Todd Whitman signed a charter school law. “It was a compromise between Democrats who wanted to spend more money on education and Republicans who wanted vouchers,” said Atkins.
Atkins began looking for a startup partner, someone with deep teaching experience. At the same time, Jamey Verrilli, a teacher and school leader at a small alternative school in Newark, was also looking for a startup partner.
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When Verrilli consulted one of his board members about starting a new school, he was advised: “‘I met this young fella named Atkins. You should talk to him.’ So I jotted his name down and — this is a true story — the phone rang literally as I hung up and the voice on the phone said, ‘This is Norman Atkins. I wanted to reach out to you about your school.’ So it was really serendipitous.”
Atkins watched Verrilli teach a lesson, and then the two talked. “Norman is a former journalist; he just riddles you with questions. So we had a three-hour talk and I answered about 10,000 questions. He was feeling me out to see where we were aligned.”
Verrilli, who came to Newark as part of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, was motivated by the social justice movement. He wanted the school to include a strong community mission. Atkins was driven by academics. “It was a nice marriage,” said Verrilli. “We put the two together and called those the two pillars of North Star.”
To gather instructional ideas, they visited several schools in New York, including Dave Levin’s school in the Bronx. Oddly, the best sharing advice came from a school that launched in a tough neighborhood and was struggling. “They started out with what they thought was a state-of-the-art curriculum — project-based learning, interdisciplinary,” Verrilli said. “They wrote the curriculum for an entire year. Then the district sent them fifth-graders, none of whom could read, so their whole curriculum went out the window and they started over from scratch.”
Norman Atkins and Jamey Verrilli launched North Star in 1997. That school’s struggle proved to be invaluable to Atkins and Verrilli, who were preparing for their first crop of students, almost all of whom probably would be reading several grade levels behind. “We designed a curriculum that was going to meet their needs.”
One of the distinguishing features of any Uncommon school is the morning Community Circle, a spirited school-wide gathering involving African drums, call and response, academic exercises and awards — pretty much everything, all done loudly and at full speed. That Community Circle, which has been copied by many other charters, came from Verrilli watching the documentary Eyes on the Prize about the civil rights movement.
“I watched the Black Panthers do these meetings out in the parks where they’d gather and share inspirational messages,” said Verrilli, “so I thought that was something that could be replicated.” He tried it out in his alternative school, and it succeeded. Atkins added African drums to the mix, as well as values education through folktales, and thus was launched the widely imitated North Star Community Circle.
With Verrilli taking primary responsibility for teaching and curriculum and Atkins taking over operations, it fell to Atkins to find a building.
“We must have looked at 50 or 70 buildings in Newark, and we finally found one in downtown where all the bus lines met. We were working with a group of parents who picked the name, North Star, for its symbolic precedent: The North Star was how slaves found their way to freedom, and it was also the name of Frederick Douglass’s newspaper.” North Star launched in 1997 with 72 students, fifth- and sixth-graders.
Early on, Atkins pioneered a practice that has proved key to the expansion of top charters: borrowing from the best. He met with KIPP’s Dave Levin. He met with Brett Peiser, who was running South Boston Harbor Academy (later renamed Boston Collegiate Charter School). He met with John King (currently Secretary of Education) and Evan Rudall from Boston’s Roxbury Prep. Then came Doug Lemov from Boston’s Academy of the Pacific Rim. Soon, Atkins and North Star became a touchstone for top charter leaders on the East Coast. Dacia Toll and Doug McCurry, the Amistad Academy founders who went on to build the Achievement First network, came to visit in his second year.
As Atkins describes it, from the very beginning he had two circles to wrap himself in. The first was the network of school entrepreneurs that would become Uncommon Schools. And the second circle was the fellow school leaders in the New York area, Toll and Levin. “I would say that Dave Levin was Teacher Zero of our movement. He was the teacher who really started to instruct in a culture that was new and positive.”
In 2000, PBS captured some of this early charter history in a documentary narrated by syndicated columnist Clarence Page.
But Atkins’s role in the broader movement goes beyond North Star; he became a seminal member of this band of reformers, joining with other top charter entrepreneurs to form the celebrated Uncommon Schools. His key collaborators: Peiser, Rudall and Lemov.
The son of teachers who both became principals in New York City schools, Peiser became a New York City teacher himself. After several years in the classroom, he decided to step back and study education policy, which landed him at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. That put him in Boston just as the state legislature passed an expansion of the original charter school law, during the same time that Evan Rudall and John King launched Roxbury Prep and Doug Lemov started Academy of the Pacific Rim.
Convinced that New York would never pass its own charter school law (it did, later), Peiser began circulating within the tiny circle of Boston charter entrepreneurs, looking for opportunity there. One day while participating in a group effort to write standards for the about-to-open Academy of the Pacific Rim, he ended up sitting next to Lemov.
“He was writing the English standards; I was writing the history standards.” It was the first time they met, and Lemov talked to Peiser about helping to start a new school. At that moment, it all jelled for Peiser. He would definitely start his own charter, which he did, with a Kennedy School colleague: South Boston Harbor Academy.
Launching that first charter came partly from a stiff nudge from Linda Brown (the leader of Building Excellent Schools, about whom I’ll be writing more later), who encouraged Peiser to choose South Boston, which had just endured a rash of teen suicides. Brown always seemed to live up to her nickname as a charter Svengali: the godmother. At the time, she ran a Boston-based organization that acted as a charter resource center. Attending meetings there were Peiser, King and Rudall. “You had these people coming to meetings and talking about best practices, then going to visit each other’s schools,” said Peiser. “I remember going to visit Roxbury Prep early on, looking at the way John was overseeing teachers and the way Evan was monitoring student information systems.” In return, Peiser gave them his student handbook that contained all the discipline systems.
The final piece of the puzzle came together when Peiser was speaking at Columbia University on a panel about curriculum standards. After the panel, he was approached by someone he had never met: Norman Atkins. “He told me he liked what I said and told me about running a charter school called North Star in Newark,” said Peiser. Soon, Peiser visited North Star. “I was blown away by the stu- dent culture and obvious pride. All these kids came up to me and told me their names and said, ‘Welcome to North Star.’ ”
As the relationship grew, Atkins was soon whispering in Peiser’s ear, “We should do something together.” Peiser and Atkins agreed on the bottom line: “How do we impact more students?” That was the beginning of Uncommon Schools.
Getting kicked out of one of Chicago’s most elite schools, the University of Chicago Laboratory School, may seem like an odd launching pad for a charter school founder, but that was Rudall’s spark. Rudall, who describes himself as a “fairly challenged” middle school student, got himself expelled in eighth grade for a long list of rebellious behaviors.
That expulsion triggered a radical change in Rudall’s life. Moving from the Lab School to a Chicago public high school meant moving from a school where most students were headed to selective colleges to a high school that was 90 percent African-American and Latino and mostly poor and where “half my ninth-grade classmates did not graduate with me four years later.”
Rudall was shocked by the educational inequity he witnessed. “The school was periodically violent, and there were lots of teachers who were indifferent, who wore headphones during their office hours and put do-not-disturb signs on their doors. I had a 10th-grade teacher who fell asleep in class. Those disparities struck me as incredibly unjust. At the age of 15, the seed was planted in me that I wanted to address that disparity.”
Rudall graduated from high school in 1988, and he then graduated from Wesleyan University. After college, he took a job at a private school in Louisville and ran a Summer Bridge program there for poor kids. “I fell in love with working with students who were challenged in one way or another, who were rebellious or resistant, because I could relate to that so easily.”
Determined to create a full-time school that would provide what Summer Bridge offered, Rudall enrolled at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. “I spent the year there focused on charter schools, which at the time was a very small movement. I was hoping to open a small school in Chicago.”
But when an alumnus from his high school started a Boston charter school, City on a Hill, Rudall changed his plans and focused on Boston, selecting the high-poverty Roxbury neighborhood, where he did his principal internship, as the neighborhood most in need of a charter.
“The night before I submitted the charter application, I went out to dinner with John King. It was the first time I had met John. My wife and her sister went to Harvard with John, so my wife introduced me to John, who was a teacher at City on a Hill. We spent the entire dinner, three or four hours, talking about education.”
After the dinner, Rudall went home and rewrote much of his charter application to incorporate King’s ideas. “He was so insightful, as he always is. I ended up pulling an all-nighter to restructure the application and submitted it the next day.”
That first dinner at an Indian restaurant in Somerville set the stage. Several dinners later, King agreed to join Rudall as co-director: King would handle curriculum and instruction, Rudall would take care of operations and finance, and both would work closely with students and families.
Recruiting families proved to be relatively easy. “We had 80 families sign up for the school based only on information sessions that I gave by myself — despite the fact we had no building, no teachers hired, no curriculum in place, and the school was obviously unproven. It just shows how eager families were for another option. They were attracted to the promise of rigorous instruction, deep caring for students and a safe, structured environment. That’s what we promised.”
Rudall tells the same story many charter entrepreneurs tell: Linda Brown from Building Excellent Schools was a key player, especially with fundraising and ensuring the application process went smoothly. “I’m not sure Roxbury Prep would have opened without Linda.”
At the last minute, Rudall found unused space in a nursing home, space that the school continues to use. Roxbury Prep opened in the fall of 1999 and within a few years led the state in scoring on the eighth-grade MCAS, a state test that at the time was considered the nation’s most rigorous.
During Roxbury’s Prep first year, Rudall got to know the other players in the Northeast charter world, including Brett Peiser and Norman Atkins. “I relied heavily on Brett to work through our first-year challenges,” said Rudall. Atkins was part of a group that visited Roxbury Prep to evaluate it for a possible grant. “My introduction to Norman was five hours of cross-examination… We fell in love with each other that day and stayed in touch.”
Rudall left Roxbury Prep for law school but never lost his desire to be involved in education. While still in law school, Rudall accepted Atkins’s offer to become Uncommon’s chief operating officer. “So I spent my third year of law school as the COO of Uncommon, which meant I never went to class.”
King, who left Roxbury Prep for law school at Yale, also agreed to join Uncommon, and Roxbury Prep was folded into the Uncommon network. “Norman had this brilliant vision to bring together several people who had run high-performing charters, and it paid huge dividends.”
In 2012, Rudall left Uncommon to start the nonprofit Zearn, a digital math program, which to him was a way of reaching far more impoverished kids than Uncommon and other top charters could possibly reach. Today, Rudall works as a consultant to district leaders and charter management organizations.
Lemov was on his way to earning a Ph.D. in English at Indiana University when he got an unusual request: Would you be willing to coach some football players who are struggling in their English classes? Because Lemov had been a serious soccer player as an undergraduate student, and also because he had taught at a private school, it was assumed he could relate to the athletes as they came to special study tables.
One of the football players he tutored was a redshirt freshman who had gone to a high school in the Bronx. “He was a real gentleman, a decent guy in every way, but he was struggling academically. So I said, ‘Why don’t you write a paragraph about yourself,’ which he did. I took one look at it and thought, ‘Holy shit, he can’t write a complete sentence.’ I can still see it in my mind’s eye, on a yellow piece of paper written in black ink. There wasn’t a complete sentence in it. It was just unbelievable.”
Curious as to how the football player had been admitted, Lemov visited the athletic office, where he learned, much to his surprise, that the player was there on his own merits: He had good grades and good recommendations. So they admitted him.
“All of a sudden it hit me, that here was this decent kid who wanted to do the right thing, gentlemanly, never a troublemaker in class, and his high school teachers all wanted to do right by him because he was so talented, and nobody wanted to be the one to crap on his dreams by saying, ‘Actually you can’t write, so I can’t pass you.’ ” The sad result, of course, is that the player stood no chance to make it academically at Indiana University and eventually dropped out and returned to the Bronx.
“It was an epiphany to me about social promotion. Those teachers thought they were helping someone, but what they were really doing was making themselves feel better. In the end, they hurt this guy badly.”
That epiphany, which translated into a desire to build better schools for urban kids, prompted Lemov to accept an offer from a college friend from Hamilton College, Stacey Boyd, who wanted to start a charter school in Boston (Academy of the Pacific Rim, which launched in 1997). After one year serving as dean of students, Lemov took over as head of the school.
In those days, the charter school movement in Boston was tiny, so it was only a matter of time before he met Brett Peiser, Norman Atkins and Linda Brown, all part of Boston’s inner circle of charter entrepreneurs. “Linda was like everyone’s fairy godmother,” said Lemov. “Every time you’d come across a problem that seemed to have no solution, she’d say, ‘OK, come on in and we’ll figure it out.’ ” Both Brown and Atkins served as master connectors. “From the outset it seemed like everyone knew Norman and he knew everyone.”
The next steps for Lemov were working for the state charter authorizer and then attending business school, where he formulated a plan to launch a group of charter schools in upstate New York, an area he had gotten to know while at Hamilton College. “I wrote a business plan and showed it to a bunch of people, including Norman, who said it looked good but suggested I join with him to pursue a similar plan.” That plan was Uncommon Schools, designed as essentially a federation of charters with separate, semi-independent regions, including True North, a cluster run by Lemov in upstate New York with schools in Rochester and Troy.
Like other top charter operators, Lemov borrowed heavily from other charters, especially Roxbury Prep and Aspire. It’s the little “borrowings” that Lemov enjoys citing. From a KIPP school in Albany, he learned how to re-do school bathrooms, which for most schools are the source of many discipline problems — from graffiti to the sparks that lead to later-in-the-day scuffles.
“It’s hard to manage that space, so at this school they flipped the bathrooms on their head. They put posters on the walls in the boys’ restroom. There were carpets in front of the sinks, ferns like what you might see in a law office bathroom, liquid soap dispensers. They made it an attractive, civilized place.”
The unspoken message: Respect this place or it will get replaced with the traditional disgusting bathrooms. “Basically, they took a problem area and made it super positive,” said Lemov. So the True North schools did the same.
Another borrowing from the KIPP school in Albany: A “millionaires” club that rewards the kids whose good behavior usually gets ignored. Those chosen for the club get their own “millionaires” tables at lunch. “There are board games you can play during lunch, a tablecloth, salt and pepper shakers. All of a sudden, it was like a restaurant, and it conferred status and privilege on the kids who were doing the right thing.” So True North did the same.
Today, Lemov remains part of Uncommon, but he has shifted to full-time teacher-training work that was launched by his best-selling book Teach Like a Champion, which lays out the successful teaching methods pioneered by top charter teachers. More than a million copies of his teaching books have been bought by teachers, many of them in traditional schools, thus making Lemov perhaps the most powerful example of charter/district crossover influence.
Interestingly, all the Uncommon leaders have branched out into crossover work, with Atkins co-founding Relay Graduate School of Education (discussed in a later chapter), Rudall starting up Zearn, and Peiser becoming Uncommon’s CEO overseeing charter/district collaborations in Brooklyn’s high-poverty Brownsville neighborhood.
That’s no coincidence, says Lemov. “I think it comes directly from our federalist structure, where educators from each leg of the federation enjoy independence but also reach out to others for resources and advice. It’s an organization that’s built to learn. It starts with the humility of admitting we don’t have all the answers and we probably never will, so let’s design ourselves, learn as much as we can as fast as we can, and then share. It’s embedded in our culture.”
That fast, independent, Uncommon-style learning spun off best-selling books, a successful graduate school of education that breaks all the rules, and a successful online learning company. And from Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, who later joined North Star and now serves as one of Uncommon’s two chief schools officers along with fellow North Star alum Julie Jackson, came the influential book Driven by Data, which has become the go-to source for both charter and traditional teachers for designing instruction around data.
All of this stems from one charter group, Uncommon Schools, which today has 44 schools in three states serving 14,000 students, with Peiser the chief executive officer.
Uncommon graduates earn bachelor’s degrees at five times the national rate for graduates from low-income schools. In 2013, Uncommon won the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools. Later, I will offer close-ups of Uncommon schools in both Newark and New York City.
Download the book, read more about Joel Klein and meet the other pioneering founders of America’s high-performing charter networks at The74Million.org/TheFounders. Below, a video interview with author Richard Whitmire, on what he learned while writing the book: