CharterFolk Contributor Dr. Dale Caldwell – How One NJ Charter School Serving At-Risk Students Scored Massive Gains on State Tests Amid Significant Declines

Good morning CharterFolk.

Today we are pleased to share a Contributor Column from Dr. Dale Caldwell the President of Centenary University in Hackettstown, New Jersey. and the Founding Board Chair of College Achieve Greater Asbury Charter School in Asbury, New Jersey.

We provide a bio for Dr. Caldwell below.

Dr. Dale G. Caldwell is the President of Centenary University in Hackettstown, New Jersey. Dale is the Pastor of Covenant United Methodist Church in Plainfield, New Jersey, the author of eight books and for the last four years in a row has been named one of the 50 Most Influential People in Higher Education in New Jersey. He graduated from Princeton University, received an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and a Doctorate from Seton Hall University. Dale also completed the Harvard Kennedy School Senior Executives in State and Local Government program and the Rutgers Leadership Coaching for Organizational Performance program. He has been the President of three public school boards and was named the 2009 New Jersey School Board Member of the Year. His professional experience includes being the CEO of Strategic Influence LLC, a Senior Manager with Deloitte Consulting, the Executive Director of the NewarkAlliance and the Deputy Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. 

How One NJ Charter School Serving At-Risk Students Scored Massive Gains on State Tests Amid Significant Declines

Recent NAEP data shows that the COVID years created an academic loss that, if not corrected, will result in a huge setback for this generation of students amounting to as much as $17 trillion in lost lifetime wages. Students of color were hit disproportionately hard. In New Jersey, the state assessment test (NJSLA) showed significant disparities between the state’s White and Asian students and their Black and Latino peers, with massive drops from pre-pandemic levels.  

At College Achieve Public Charter School (CAPS), we serve a vulnerable population that should have seen similarly dismal scores. Over 98% of our scholars are Black or Latino, and most qualify for the Federal Free & Reduced Lunch program. When we first opened in 2015, most of our scholars were two, three and even four grade levels behind.  

Yet, after eight years and one global pandemic, our students didn’t just show progress–they displayed remarkable growth. At our CAPS Asbury Park schools, students had the third largest gains in the state in English Language Arts (ELA) and improved in every grade level in reading, math and written expression on the New Jersey Student Learning Assessment (NJSLA).  CAPS Asbury (where I am the Board Chair), had extraordinary results:  

CAPS Asbury also closed the achievement gap in ELA in 5 out of 7 grade levels tested for our Latino students and in 2 out 7 grade levels for our African American students. CAPS Asbury also ranked #11 in the state out of all charter schools on the NJ ESSA rankings, and highest among all charter schools with a majority African American student body.  

Over at our CAPS Paterson schools, scholars’ growth scores ranked in the 92nd percentile for performance in ELA and the 89th percentile for performance in math statewide out of more than 2,100 schools. And our students in Plainfield (CAPS Central), under the leadership of Executive Director Corri Tate Ravare …

… were in the 99th percentile in the state for ELA growth and the 91st percentile for math growth, offering African American and Hispanic students one of the best opportunities in the state for growth in both ELA and math. 

While we are immensely proud of the remarkable progress our scholars have made, we are by no means done. CAPS’ overall mission is to and through college. We see our schools as community hubs meeting broader social needs with strong academics, including AP classes, small class sizes, resources for parents, college counseling services and more. Things are clearly moving in the right direction–this spring, one of our graduates was accepted to both Harvard University and Princeton University.  

These results buck the trend of steep learning loss experienced by students across New Jersey. 

How did we do it? This growth is the result of a number of strategic learning plans that were put in place well before the pandemic and carried through with unwavering fidelity—even during the most uncertain times.  Here are some of the strategies we prioritized that led to this success. 

Prioritizing well-being and mental health 

When the pandemic struck in March 2020, many of our students faced new challenges that compounded existing difficulties in their lives. Only a third of our CAPS Asbury students, for example, live with both parents and 15 percent are categorized as unhoused. Financial uncertainty, food insecurity and the loss of family members were just some of the hardships our scholars were facing. We had to prioritize their well-being, safety and mental health above all else. We knew that we couldn’t dive into the learning until we had addressed these other, more pressing, issues.  

Executive Director of CAPS Asbury, Jodi McInerney …

… Mrs. Mac, as the kids call her—stepped up and created an academic, mental health and social plan for our network that included full-day, synchronous virtual learning that felt much like a regular school day. To make this happen, she led an effort to distribute wireless hotspots and Chromebooks to all CAPS students. With school buildings closed, she trained our security officers to repair computers and provide tech support at students’ homes—keeping our team members employed while meeting a critical need.  

We also doubled down on counseling services, providing in-home check-ins, wellness visits, meals deliveries and financial assistance when needed. Our counselors and teachers were in regular contact with the families of our scholars. If a student was experiencing hardships, we knew about it and were able to quickly pivot so they didn’t fall behind or worse, simply stop showing up. The approach worked, with our schools boasting daily attendance rates above 90% even through the pandemic. 

Another reason for our success in this area is our commitment to educator and school leader diversity. As CAPS Paterson Executive Director Gemar Mills …

… recently wrote in the Star-Ledger

… teachers of color are critical for all students, especially students of color. We are proud that our schools are a safe, welcoming space for students and educators alike. 

We would not be where we are today without our focus on well-being and mental health. How can a student be expected to learn when they are hungry or dealing with the trauma of loss? Prioritizing this work was a key factor to our success, and continues to be to this day. 

Embedding high-intensity tutoring into the school day 

Once we knew our scholars’ social-emotional needs were being met, we were able to strategically tackle the learning. Internal testing revealed the gaps, and we invested heavily in daily, high-intensity tutoring to target the areas of decline. We saw early on the value of this kind of intensive tutoring and seized on it.

Tutoring took place four days a week–during the school day–in groups of three to five students led by certified, highly qualified math and ELA teachers. Embedding it in the school day ensured that students could still have a “work-life balance” by participating in sports and other after-school activities, and also helped to keep the tutoring aligned with core classroom instruction. By administering regular assessments to students and analyzing the results, the tutors were able to give students the targeted, individualized support they needed. And we also regularly surveyed our students to see what was and wasn’t working about their tutoring experience and adjusted accordingly. 

Implementing the Toulmin Writing/Thinking Model 

Early on in our organization’s history, we embedded the Toulmin Model of Argumentation–a writing model that trains students to analyze text and construct an argument.

This is the model of writing taught to students at elite private schools. We start in the lower grades so students are writing all the time and have a true understanding of this method by the time they get to high school. This has been tremendously successful, as shown by our NJSLA written expression scores. For example, our Asbury scholars outperformed the overall state proficiency rates–not just the subgroups’. But beyond state test scores, if a student is able to write a persuasive essay, they will be set up to succeed in college. The Toulmin model and our overall curriculum focuses on teaching students how to think for themselves and prove it by learning how to write a clear and compelling argument.  

CAPS Asbury matches or exceeds the state in the NJSLA written expression scores.  

Keeping school buildings open 

At our CAPS Asbury schools where we experienced our greatest growth, we stayed open more days during the pandemic than any of the traditional public schools in our region – 143 days. We also kept expectations high, safely keeping our doors open for learning  all day, for all students. On most days when traditional public schools had shuttered their doors, our schools were open. 

An intentional focus on helping students build social capital 

In his three decades as an educator, CAPS CEO and Founder Michael Piscal

… has been animated by the belief that if we give students from low-income families access to the support and opportunities more affluent students have, they will excel.

We see this reflected not only in our academic outcomes but also in the response from our scholars, who enthusiastically embrace these opportunities. I’m proud of the work we are doing at CAPS to fulfill this mission. At CAPS Paterson, our scholars are immersed in robotics competitions, coding classes

… and developing new podcast productions. At CAPS Central, our first senior class had access to SAT and ACT prep classes and worked with college essay tutors to help them craft compelling college application essays, resulting in 100% of our seniors receiving college acceptances. And at CAPS Asbury Park, we’ve partnered with local businesses to offer scholars summer job opportunities that can lead to management and growth opportunities. We also take our students skiing for six weeks every winter, enrolling them in classes so they can learn a sport they likely wouldn’t have been able access otherwise. 

Additionally, across our entire network we have partnered with Hackensack Meridian Health so that over twenty seniors next year will shadow doctors, nurses, lab technicians, and hospital administrators as they make their rounds and perform their duties.  It is an incredible opportunity to inspire and educate our students on what really happens behind the scenes at a hospital.  This will be the first year of an ongoing collaboration with Hackensack Meridian Health to develop the next generation of health care professionals and leaders.  

Last summer, we launched our Summer of a Lifetime (SOAL) program.

We teamed up with Princeton, Harvard, Oxford and other elite universities to offer 126 scholars a residential summer school program, giving them early access to college-level courses at the world’s leading academic institutions. They learned from tenured professors and Rhodes Scholars, explored the campuses and learned that they belong there just as much as anyone else. These experiences not only produce happy, well-rounded students, but also give students a broader understanding of the world and access to new and different experiences before they head to college—setting them up for success when they enroll.  

This summer, we have dramatically expanded our SOAL programs on four fronts:  

  1. CAPS SOAL Partnerships with Putney Student Travel and JSA.  The summer of 2023 is going to be even better – over 200 students now have a choice to study in Europe at Oxford, University of Paris, or Siena University in Tuscany or in America at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia University Climate School, Stanford, or Colby College.  
  1. Summer Science Camps at NJIT. Nearly 40 of our students in grades 3-8 will have the opportunity to attend a 4-week, full day summer science camp—providing 120 hours of science instruction on top of what they do during the school year. With our new STEM-based after school programs, our students can experience as many as 420 hours a year of STEM education from 3rd grade through 8th grade.  
  1. SOAL for Rising 9th Graders – Nearly 75 CAPS students—one quarter of 9th graders across the network—will attend Princeton, St. Elizabeth University and Centenary University.  We hope to increase this number next year to 90% of our rising 9th graders. We want all of our students in the transition between 8th grade and 9th grade to experience living on a college campus for at least a week in the summer, attending classes taught by college professors, and coming away inspired by the experience and believing they belong.   
  1. Partnership with SOAL University (SOAL U). We are partnering with SOAL U to offer over 100 students an amazing experience at Princeton University where they will be taught by legendary professors, including Alain Kornhauser, William Massey, and Robert Vanderbei. SOAL U is a new non-profit founded by Brian Taylor, a legendary educator, former All-American at Princeton, and ABA All-Star. Brian helped found ICEF Public Schools as a board member and then became its first middle school principal where he closed the achievement gap in English and math. One hundred percent of his students passed the state Algebra test in 8th grade. Brian has recruited legendary Princeton faculty to be the summer teaching staff, and luminaries such as Dr. Julius Erving and Craig Robinson to the board of SOAL U. Brian Taylor is also now the Chair of the College Achieve Public Schools (CAPS) board of trustees.

Looking ahead to an even stronger future. 

While we are encouraged to see that our strategies are working, we have more work to do if we wish to make a broader impact on the community and help disrupt the cycle of poverty through education. For true change to happen, we need to see these kinds of strategies implemented on a broad scale and across all school models—charter, traditional public, private and parochial. We’re ready to take our success to the next level—who’s in?