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Report card on 2 high schools funded by Zuckerberg gift

One of the most important uses of Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift cited by Newark officials last year was its use as start-up funds for innovative high schools. NBC News looks at two of them.
/ Source: NBC News

One of the most important uses of Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift cited by Newark officials last year was as start-up money for innovative high schools.

How are they doing now? In interviews with Newark Public School officials last month, NBC News learned that three of the four innovative high schools Newark opened last fall had survived. The fourth failed, but mainly because an external sponsoring organization ceased its operations, according to one of the officials.

NBC News visited two of the schools last September, during their first month of operation:

  • Bard High School Early College, offering a rigorous "early-college" curriculum for students who want more challenging work.
  • And Newark Bridges High School, a "second-chance" school for students who previously had dropped out.

This month, we checked back with both schools for an update:

Bard High School Early College
Bard High School Early College is a public high school model developed and operated by Bard College in New York state, which allows students to earn a high school diploma and a two-year associate’s college degree in four years. Bard established its first two public high schools in New York City. Newark was its third school.

We met Dr. Raymond Peterson, Bard/Newark high school’s first principal, one day early in the morning last September, as he greeted students arriving at the beginning of the school day. Peterson told us last month that the school has been a success.

Newark was the most challenging of Bard’s three schools, Peterson said, because Newark Public Schools superintendent Cami Anderson insisted that it could not be “super-selective” and accept only the best and brightest students; it had to accept a diverse sample of Newark students, of varying academic ability. Because Bard’s curriculum is challenging and its assignments rigorous, Peterson was concerned that some students would find it too difficult, and might not return if they did poorly.

But what happened surprised him. While many Newark students found Bard’s work very challenging, and some did not do well academically -- even to the point of failing and having to make up courses -- most choose to return for a second year, Peterson said, because they wanted the challenging work.

As planned, the school, which started with only ninth- and an 11th-grade classes, now has four classes -- ninth through 12th grades. That almost doubled enrollment, from 120 to 220 students.

“I’m much more optimistic than I thought I’d be,” said Peterson, who came out of retirement to help launch the school. Because of the school’s success, he was able to retire again, and is now working to help promote the new national Common Core school curriculum.

What role did Zuckerberg’s money play in Newark’s Bard school? Without it, Peterson said, “We could not have realistically launched the school.”

Newark Bridges High School
The results were also good at Newark Bridges High School, according to its principal, Shenette Gray.

Despite the fact that it is a “second-chance” school for students who previously dropped out or had difficulty in their previous high schools, 77 percent of its students advanced to the next grade after the first year, she told us.

“We’re doing well,” she said, “but we still have a lot of work to do.”

During our visit last year, we interviewed four Newark Bridges students about why they had come to Bridges.

A young man named Felix told us then that he transferred to Newark Bridges because his old school was very academically challenging and very stressful.

“I needed a school that was smaller, less kids,” Felix said. “Here, if I raise my hand and have a question, the teacher actually answers and helps me.”

Felix graduated.

Rhonda told us last year that her mother had transferred her to Newark Bridges because she had not been doing well at her old school.

“I never went to class,” Rhonda said. “I never did work, and I was failing.”

Rhonda also graduated.

Aniyyah, who had dropped out of school after becoming a teen mother, told us last year she just did not feel like going and was not listening to her mother.

We had met Aniyyah while she was applying to attend the school, accompanied by her mother and her 2-year-old son.

“I was on a wrong track, following a wrong train,” she said at the time. “I decided to come back because I noticed that, without education, there's nothing.”

“I thank Mark (Zuckerberg) so much,” her mother, Yolanda, said.  “Thank you — for giving Newark a second chance.”

Aniyyah did attend Newark Bridges, but did not graduate. She dropped out again and has not returned.

A student named Knowledge told us that he had dropped out in his junior year because he needed money and started “hustling” on the streets.

We asked him why he had returned.

“Because me being in the streets, I realized that that's not … what I wanted to do. Can't succeed out there,” he said. “In the long run, you're gonna wind up either dead or in jail. In the school, anything's possible.”

Knowledge did not graduate. He dropped out again and has not returned.

So two of the four students we interviewed graduated, and the other two dropped out again.

“The biggest challenge,” Principal Gray said about Newark Bridges, “is motivating students.  Particularly the ones whose lives are the most challenged by realities like teen pregnancy or criminal trouble.”

Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Anderson, the schools superintendent, have set an ultimate goal for all the school reforms: that Newark’s public schools prepare all students so that all graduate college-ready.

In our interview last month, NBC’s senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers asked Anderson, “Is your goal of getting every single Newark public school student ready for college realistic given the realities of life in this city?”

Anderson, who previously was superintendent of alternative high schools in New York City for five years, had this answer:

“What I found is, whether you're a teen parent or you're someone who gets in trouble with the law, the idea that you have the academic skills to graduate from college should not wane,” she said.

“In fact, that should cause us to double down our efforts. If you're a young person who has little people that you're now responsible for -- and/or you have a record -- all the more reason why it is absolutely critical for you to have a high school diploma and college level skill, because that is what will allow you to access a 21st century economy.

“We need not give up just because a young person missteps or makes, you know, some choices that we would prefer that they did not. They did not lose their academic aptitude just because they had some challenges often that are affiliated with poverty. This is when we double down. Right? This is when we actually reinvest and recommit to the notion that those young people who are struggling need to get college-level skill. Because the more challenges they face as they get older, the more likely they will be to overcome them if they have really high levels of academic skill.”

Both Bard and Newark Bridges, part of Newark Public Schools, eventually will exhaust their allotted Zuckerberg start-up grants.

But district officials say Bard will continue through financial support from Bard College and Newark Public Schools. Newark Bridges will continue through funding from Newark Public Schools.