Principal leads educational turnaround at charter school
An educator who grew up in Jamestown is achieving some startling results at a New York City charter school. Tom Kaiser, who moved to the island from Pittsburgh with his family when he was 10 years old, has seen a meteoric rise in academic accomplishments since his time at Achievement First Endeavor in Brooklyn.
In 2006, the school was ranked 230th out of the city’s 399 middle schools. Today, under the leadership of Kaiser, who is only 30 years old but serves as Endeavor’s principal, the school is ranked 17th.
“We’re trying to do something that is nearly impossible, but possible,” Kaiser said. “We are trying to catapult our kids from coming from years behind – our typical fifth-grader is at a second- or third-grade reading level – and pushing them until they are some of the highest performing kids in the state. We’re not there yet, but we’re making pretty big steps in the right direction.”
Kaiser attended Lawn Avenue School and graduated from North Kingstown in 2000. From there he attended George Washington University (Washington, D.C.) where he studied history and received his bachelor’s degree. After college, Kaiser signed on with Teach for America. The program recruits candidates from the nation’s top colleges to teach in some of the highest-needs areas of the country. It is an alternative route to educations, allowing teachers to go directly into the classroom after a five-week training program. Kaiser also holds a master’s degree in educational leadership from Na- tional Lewis University.
Kaiser made a two-year commitment to the organization and was sent to teach at a public school in the Mississippi delta, in a town with a population of 700 people. There he taught every subject in the fifth grade.
According to Kaiser, there were a number of challenges involved in teaching in that area. “It’s been a very poor economy for a very long time,” he said. “There are very few jobs. There is no longer a small farms economy there because there are huge corporate farms using mechanized farming.”
Kaiser describes the landscape as being dotted with small towns and large prisons. Graduation rates are low, and a sense of complacency has developed as a result of the lack of opportunity. Kaiser said that the schools in the delta also suffer from de facto segregation because the majority of the white students attend private academies.
“It’s a tough place,” he said. Kaiser illustrated his point by saying that convicts from a nearby prison were often brought to clean up schools during the day, and were in close proximity to the students and faculty at those times.
Although Kaiser did not leave Mississippi with a great sense of accomplishment, he thought he became a better teacher over the course of his two years there. However, he was not under any illusion that he had been responsible for any lasting impact on the system.
Despite the discouraging nature of his first job – and not even sure that he wanted to continue teaching – Kaiser decided to seek a job where he could work with like-minded people and hopefully make a difference. He didn’t know anything about charter schools when he applied for a job with a company called Achievement First. He was hired to become part of the founding team of the Achievement First Endeavor Middle School in 2006.
A charter school is a public school that is free to students. Unlike other public schools, it does not operate under the direct management of the department of education. However, it is accountable to the department of education and must meet certain goals. The school is run by a board of directors instead of a board of education. The teachers are non-union, allowing for a longer workday and school year. Charter schools are funded in the same way as any public school.
Charter schools were originally intended to be something of a laboratory for techniques that could then be transported back to the public schools. These days charter schools have become more of a school of choice. Parents are required to fill out an application, and students are chosen in a public lottery. There are far more applications than spots available.
“We can only serve a small fraction of the parents who want to send kids to our school,” Kaiser said.
Achievement First runs 20 charter schools in places like Brooklyn, as well as Connecticut cities such as New Haven, Hartford and Bridgeport. The company is scheduled to open its first Rhode Island school in two years – after meeting with resistance based on the perception that charter schools drain resources from traditional public schools. Strong union objections are also an issue.
When Kaiser started at Achievement First Endeavor, fifth grade was the only grade. Since then, one grade has been added each year.
Kaiser began with Endeavor as a founding teacher in 2006. When the school’s academic dean left after Kaiser’s first year, he was promoted to the position when he was just 25 years old. Two years later, in 2009, he became the school’s principal when the existing principal transitioned out of the school.
Endeavor serves several of Brooklyn’s tougher urban neighborhoods – of the 301 students enrolled during the 2011-12 school year, 100 percent were either black or Hispanic, and 79 percent qualifi ed for free or reduced lunch.
Part of Kaiser’s responsibility in his current role is to hire teachers. He said that he looks for teachers who think of their role as more than a job, have a certain level of commitment to the mission of closing the achievement gap, and are firmly rooted in the “no-excuses” mindset.
Under Kaiser’s direction, Endeavor has achieved stunning results in a short time. While the reading results are a work in progress, the math results thus far are outstanding. Eighth-grade students at Endeavor have a better chance of passing the state exam than students in New York’s most affluent school district of Rye. In its own district, only 38 percent of students pass the exam. At Endeavor, 93 percent of students pass.
“We are quickly coming to a point where our kids are performing at a superior level in mathematics,” Kaiser said.
While Kaiser admits that the results in reading are not there yet, he points to big strides being made by his students. “In terms of the top districts in the state, we are still far behind,” he said. “That’s the number one priority for our school at this point.”
Kaiser turned 30 a few months ago and continues to look toward the future. “I’m totally focused on the task at hand,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do in our school. We want people to raise their expectations about what they want a school to do. We need to expect a lot more in terms of what our schools can do in terms of serving our kids.”