Asbury Park district makes gains with administrative push
Superintendent Lamont Repollet is touting literacy improvements over the past few years and applying a greater focus to experiential learning
With the addition of a permanent superintendent promoting an ambitious approach to improving graduation rates, the Asbury Park School District in New Jersey is seeing signs of growth. Superintendent Lamont Repollet and Assistant Superintendent Sancha Gray are touting their “hard hat nation” idea, which stresses improvements in literacy, more stringent self-assessments and a move from a deficit to a growth mindset from educators in terms of student potential.
“Using a metaphor, we’re flying a plane and gassing it at the same time. We don’t have time to pull over and refuel,” Gray said. “I would say we’re reaching altitude.”
The K-12 district serves approximately 2,450 students as of the 2014-15 school year, according to the National Center of Education Statistics, with five schools in total. Prior to Repollet’s promotion to superintendent, Asbury Park underwent years of uncertainty, with a high degree of turnover in administration. The district had six directors of curriculum in the previous five years, and four superintendents in six years prior to the start of Repollet’s tenure. The district also suffered from low graduation rates, measured at 51% in 2013, and was periodically poorly rated. In total, 75% of students were reading below grade level, which made Repollet and Gray all the more committed to an early focus on literacy.
“We’re still in the early stages. We finished our third school year, and we’re using ACE (assess, create and execute). In the first year, we assessed, then we created. Now we’ve executed the plan, so we’re going to assess,” Repollet said about the progress thus far. “There are metrics that are showing progress. We’re not making these huge tremendous gains, where we’re thinking we’re a fluke.”
Gray noted that the high percentage of students not reading at grade level spurred a range of interventions across the grades offered, including programs in adult literacy. Through assessment, educators pinpointed students reading at three to six grade levels below and focused on improvement. Gray also said they were starting to see students exit intervention, partially because they were now able to access the full range of standards and content at grade level, which Gray said was a massive improvement. Some 95% of kindergartners moving into first grade would be able to receive the full range of content, she said, which the district had not seen in 20 years.
Repollet said there had also been metrics indicating upticks in attendance — including among parents at teacher conferences, a newly-established parent center and at school functions — and there have also been improvements on standardized test scores for the first time in seven years. Repollet said the district was pinpointing innovative educational leaders within schools and investing in the creation of in-school instructional leadership teams utilizing the Daggett System for Efficient Instruction (DSEI), and working to ensure students are being instructed in Quadrant D learning, which can be experiential, project-based and rigorous.
A new emphasis on experiential learning aims to get students into the workplace and visiting college campuses. According to Repollet, 65 students in the district had jobs or internships last year, and had visited places like Harvard and Rutgers University. He said it was an extension of the “hard hat” approach, which he initiated with taking a hard hat to his interview for the superintendent position. To Repollet, the branding metaphor connotes a “blue-collar” school district under construction, rebuilding Asbury Park’s academics and pride in education.
“We’re actually making progress. And that’s key, because we’re cultivating a culture that has been toxic for decades. It occurs by creating a positive learning environment and culture,” he said. “It’s built by us, and that’s how it’s going to be sustained over time, because these same stakeholders will have buy-in over time.”
The Asbury Park School District is receiving increased attention for the work it is doing. The district was named an Innovative District by the International Center for Leadership in Education, and Repollet recently received a contract extension so he could continue the work that was started in 2014. Repollet and Gray also recently represented the district at the Model Schools Conference in Nashville at the end of June, where they presented some of their findings and approaches to interested educators and administrators from throughout the country. Repollet said that after his presentation, he’d received e-mails asking how a new superintendent or principal can develop a successful school culture.
“If you’re building, and if you’re new, you have to assess your environment. You have to create an educational blueprint, and just assess that plan. So, just ACE it,” he said. He also noted it was important for a district leader to clarify the central tenets of that district’s educational approach and promote it for themselves. “I would ask, ‘What’s your brand? What do you stand for? What does your district stand for?’ It’s important to tell your story. Someone’s going to define you, so define yourself first."