Straight Up Conversation: Urban Assembly CEO Kristin Kearns-Jordan

Kristin Kearns-Jordan is the CEO of Urban Assembly, a nonprofit that serves a family of public high schools in New York City. During her 25-year career in education, Kristin has worked with a mentoring and financial aid program for NYC high schoolers while founding the School Choice Scholarships Foundation and Bronx Preparatory Charter School. I recently had the chance to chat with Kristin about Urban Assembly, what they do, and some of the challenges they’ve faced on timely questions like graduation rates and school discipline. Here’s what she had to say.

Rick Hess: Kristin, thanks for taking the time. So, for starters, what exactly is Urban Assembly? How many high schools are involved, and just what does Urban Assembly do for and with them?

Kristin Kearns-Jordan: The Urban Assembly is a family of 21 district middle and high schools throughout New York City, plus one start-up charter school. We are a nonprofit school-reform organization that founded these schools in partnership with the New York City Department of Education. The district has placed nearly all of our schools under the same superintendent, in order to facilitate alignment of the district’s management and our support. As we work with our schools, we develop and share effective strategies through our community of practice.

Urban Assembly’s role is primarily to do capacity-building work with the adults in the school. The coaching, technical assistance, and curricular resources we offer are pretty straightforward. What really makes it all come together are the communities of practice we have established among principals, deans, teachers, and college advisors. Professionals love to learn from their peers, and through regular intervisitations around problems of practice, the schools really grow in this intimate community. We also provide some direct support to our graduates through a college-and-career success texting program.

RH: Who came up with the idea for Urban Assembly and how did it get started?

KKJ: Richard Kahan, who helped to build the physical city of New York, “fell” into education, first renovating public schools’ ball fields, and eventually tackling the building of schools themselves. In 1997, Richard opened the first Urban Assembly high school, and when the Bloomberg administration was looking for organizations with capacity to create small schools to replace the city’s failing big high schools, Richard and the UA stepped forward. Supported by both district funds and a significant Gates grant, an extraordinary period of growth followed—twelve of our schools were founded between 2003 and 2007 alone.

RH: On your website it says that you all are striving to create “small public schools that are open to all students.” Can you talk a bit about how you try to make that work?

KKJ: Most of our schools have about 400 students, roughly 100 per grade. This size allows for intimacy—for each student to be truly known by his or her teachers. It also focuses our resources, as not every elective is possible—not an altogether negative thing. Many of our schools are co-located with other high schools on shared campuses, so students can be part of a building-wide sports team, or in some cases shared AP classes. We rely on creativity to make sure our students have access to a full complement of rigorous coursework, for example offering 9th graders algebra-based physics in some schools alongside algebra, as many of the concepts in these two courses reinforce one another.

RH: For your schools, what does a “full complement of rigorous coursework” mean in practice?

KKJ: All of our students take the traditional college-preparatory curriculum, with four years of English and history, ideally four years of math and science, and two years of a foreign language. In our eight CTE schools, there is an additional department offering courses in career pathways. For example, at the Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology students opt into either software engineering, digital design and animation, or information technology pathways.

RH: Can you talk a bit about the costs and the financial model here? Where does the funding come from?

KKJ: We serve 9,000 students with a $4 million budget—about $450 per student. That is the cost of Urban Assembly’s support to the schools, including hiring coaches with expertise in academic disciplines, social-and-emotional learning, college access, and career readiness. They run professional development sessions and professional learning communities, as well as coach school-based professionals. Some of this money also goes to our college success texting program, allowing us to provide direct support to our graduates.

All costs associated with running the schools—teachers, facilities, transportation, curriculum materials—are covered by the New York City Department of Education. This partnership gives us less control, but allows us to focus on the key levers of school success: leadership, academics, social-and-emotional learning, and college access and career readiness.

RH: Given that you all have been at this awhile, any sense of how come you haven’t seen more imitators?

KKJ: I think the idea of dancing with the New York City Department of Education, which serves more than a million students via more than 1,000 schools, is a little intimidating. Our schools experience significant regulation, plus citywide union contracts. We are inside of public education, and while the bureaucracy can make us itch, there are amazing educators in this system with whom we collaborate and share practices. We are about to sign a contract, for example, to provide social-emotional supports to District 75, which serves many special needs students in NYC. That kind of collaboration would be harder as a full outsider. So much collaboration is grounded in relationships and trust, which we have built at all levels of the Department of Education over 20 years.

RH: What’s the evidence that Urban Assembly is working? What kinds of outcomes are you all seeing that make you feel good about how things are going, and where do you see room for improvement?

KKJ: We are proud that our graduation rate of 80 percent is significantly higher than New York City’s overall rate of 73 percent, despite our students coming into our schools with lower levels of academic proficiency and higher levels of academic need. Our 85 percent college enrollment rate is about 20 points higher than the city’s overall. With regard to college readiness, we are proud of our literacy results—with 77 percent of students college-ready. At the same time, we need to focus more on math, where we have historically underperformed. Just 37 percent of our seniors were college-ready in math last year—but 53 percent of our sophomores are at this point, so there is progress. I think there is much to learn from the charter sector’s success in math, and we intend to build bridges across sectors to advance all of our work.

Also, only 40 percent of our students are currently graduating from college. We are laser focused on that number, working during high school to be sure they are prepared, to ensure they attend colleges and programs that have good track records with low-income students, and to make sure they are accessing all possible supports in college so they make it to graduation.

RH: What are Urban Assembly schools doing to drive these results?

KKJ: While each of our schools is unique, there are common practices that the network has developed. First, we are hyper-focused on relevance and student agency to help foster engagement. Our schools are all themed, often linked to students’ future careers, creating the opportunity for teachers to connect curriculum with the outside world. Second, we use data to identify problems of practice and use things like curricular resources to help teachers improve. Lastly, we focus on developing students’ social and emotional skills through a program we created called Resilient Scholars. This program relies on explicit instruction in skills related to personal responsibility, social awareness, self-management, decision making, and goal-directed behavior.

RH: You mentioned Urban Assembly’s impressive graduation rate. Of course, we’ve recently seen a spate of news stories reminding us how easy it can be to game graduation rates and fudge these numbers. How confident are you that your graduation numbers are credible and how do you all try to make sure those figures are solid?

KKJ: The best protection against this kind of gaming is a culture of integrity. As soon as the goal is chasing a number—any number—you start to get perverse incentives. We monitor every student’s progress at the network level through tools developed by our colleagues at New Visions for Public Schools. Our data team works with each school leadership team tracking students’ credit accumulation, GPA, test performance, and progress to graduation. This helps us to identify challenges and opportunities faced by individual students and cohorts, and creates an accountability structure backing up our commitment to every students’ success.

RH: Last fall, a student from one of your schools was charged with manslaughter for stabbing another student in history class, while two teachers allegedly did nothing. How has your organization responded, and what changes, if any, have been made?

KKJ: This was a devastating event, one from which we will be pulling the lessons for years. Right now our focus is on supporting every student and teacher at the school as they mourn their friend and work through the trauma of such an event occurring in their community. We are also preparing to help students with transfers, as the school will be closing in June. We are working to understand how we can move forward not only stronger, but smarter. I am at that school every week, and our Wildlife students (the school where this happened) are as focused on their future as any I have ever met.

RH: Just to follow up on that. Some observers have suggested that Urban Assembly’s decision to adopt a “restorative justice” approach to school discipline was a factor that contributed to this tragedy. For instance, it’s been reported that before Urban Assembly altered its disciplinary code, 86 percent of teachers said order was maintained in the school, while last year just 19 percent of teachers did. What’s your take on such data and how is Urban Assembly weighing any changes to its disciplinary policies?

KKJ: This is misinformation. While a handful of individual Urban Assembly schools have adopted restorative justice practices, it is not an initiative of the network. To my knowledge, Wildlife wasn’t doing any significant restorative justice work. We continually analyze discipline and school climate survey data from all of our 21 schools in order to identify both challenges and examples of success, so that we can foster ongoing improvement throughout the network.

RH: As you look forward to the next few years, what are some of the key challenges and opportunities you’re thinking about?

KKJ: I mentioned math and college success as our key problems of practice, and we will be doing rapid program iteration to figure out the best way to move these needles. I also look forward to growing the network—having a blended portfolio of district and charter schools is exciting to me. I believe we also have quite a bit to share with our peers in the district, charter, and Catholic school sectors, and much to learn from them. We can get a little tribal, each of us in our corner, and I’d like to be a part of changing that. We have so many kids to educate and big national problems to solve. Each of us deserves critique, and many of us have started to figure some things out. Let’s work together to get it done.

— Frederick Hess

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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