Last summer Achievers Early College Prep Charter School in Trenton was tackling all that opening a new school entails: getting a building in shape, securing the first sixth grade class, and completing meticulous paperwork.
But what a difference a year makes. Achievers ECP is now welcoming most of last year’s sixth graders as seventh graders, and is ready to teach a new sixth grade class. And next year at this time, the original sixth graders will be eighth graders, as the new public charter school is growing, one grade at a time.
Located in the former St. Stanislaus School, built in 1925 on Smith Street in the South Trenton neighborhood, Achievers ECP is equipped with an all-purpose room, offices, and classrooms. But it also has a built-in philosophy: that college is attainable, and by fostering partnerships among other educators and colleges, the school will produce digitally literate graduates who are prepared for jobs that may not even exist today.
The idea that college is attainable is evident throughout the building. Co-founder Efe Odeleye has made it a point to hang college pennants throughout — and even name homerooms for the colleges of the homeroom teachers — to get students familiar with college names and to show that college is ahead for them.
The public charter school highlights STEAM-based experiences such as lessons in coding and engineering challenges designing a catapult and building robots from model kits. Each student has a computer. STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.
Achievers ECP is the result of creative thinking by two sisters who were raised to respect education and, through their church outreach experiences, were taught to make an impact in their communities. The daughters of Nigerian immigrants, who settled in New York before moving to New Jersey, were raised by a taxi driver father who eventually earned a master’s degree in business administration. Their mother cleaned to make a living until they started a beauty supply business that grew to three shops.
The sisters used to talk about what should change in schools and education. Odeleye was a journalism major at Rutgers and got her master’s degree in government administration at the University of Pennsylvania after learning to love teaching in a Salvadorian neighborhood for Teach for America. She spent five years in Nigeria with her husband and family, and there, acquired the perspective of a developing country, and what it means when the baseline is low and everyone has common goals.
As adults, Odeleye and her sister, Osen Osagie, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Rowan University and a master’s in educational leadership and administration from New York University, were still talking about what they would change in education. They asked each other questions like, “why are kids in the United States not jumping on the digital bandwagon? Why is so much attention placed on brick and mortar?”
Soon the sisters decided to test their ideas and held a series of pop-up discussions and focus groups, for example, at the Trenton Free Public Library and Family Success Center. They selected a STEM curriculum called Project Lead The Way, a hands-on, problem-solving approach to teaching. STEM is Steam without “arts.”
Odeleye says they also thought about, “How do we learn from past mistakes? What happened at the charter schools that were forced to close?” They sat down with other school leaders and built trust, she says.
“We let it be known we weren’t stepping on toes but were here to enhance the landscape,” she says. Achievers ECP opened with 70 students. Tthey are approved for 90 in each grade.
A recurring theme is reducing barriers that discourage applying to college. Students at Achievers ECP can earn 60 credits toward colleges, partnering with Rowan College at Burlington County in Mount Laurel, and soon, other nearby community colleges.
The sisters are finding that they are meeting the goals for educating students that they discussed all those years. Says Osagie: “My ultimate goal is to ensure that all students receive an excellent education that will get them to and through college and beyond, specifically in the areas of STEAM. I want to ensure the opportunity for students to choose college or a high-growth career. Students should be able to leave Achievers ECP with the mindset that ‘I can achieve anything I want to,’ because we prepared them well, giving them the skills and resources to be able to accomplish whatever they want to succeed in.”
This September, the school is fully enrolled. But there is more work to do. Running a charter school is a continuing intensive process, says Odeleye, with requirements for leadership, a board of governors, a facilities plan, and curriculum. “We are held to very high standards, and renewed every four years,” she says. (In fact, the school had to scramble to meet state requirements to open on time last fall.)
The school is almost 100 percent funded by federal state and local dollars. According to the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE), a charter school is a public school that operates as its own Local Education Agency under a charter granted by the commissioner. In New Jersey, the Department of Education is the sole authorizing agent for charter schools, which operate under a charter and are independent of the local school district’s board of education but governed by an independent board of trustees. As of May, 2019, there were 88 charter schools operating in New Jersey, serving approximately 52,000 students enrolled across the state.
Achievers ECP charter school has made a difference in the lives of its pupils, Odeleye says. She spoke of one student she called Lacey, from a single-parent home. Lacey had come from a Trenton charter school that had closed, and her morale was low because of that. “Expectations for her had gotten lax,” says Odeleye.
“We needed to reshape the expectations. Challenge, rigor, hold students to a higher bar. Lacey has a strong personality, but her mom is a true partner, and I credit her too. Lacey’s attitude improved; there has been academic growth.”
This past summer, Achievers ECP sent 18 students to participate in the Princeton-Blairstown Center’s Summer Bridge program, a week-long leadership and enrichment program in which they live in a rustic, outdoor setting, with one goal of sustaining learning momentum through the summer.
Education in Trenton is a vital and volatile topic. With an eye on building the Trenton Public School system and attempting to halt funds going to charter schools, those in the school system oppose them. As outgoing Trenton School Superintendent Fred McDowell said in 2018 about the estimated $33,579,954 going to charter schools from the school system’s total operating budget of $260,015,923: “We in Trenton are adamantly opposed to charter school expansion. We are united in that statement.”
However, families looking for immediate results only have to consider the current statistics to think about opting for a charter school. Combining U.S. News & World Report’s 2019 review of Trenton’s three different high school campuses operating during the construction of a new central high school (see story, page 24), Trenton’s high school graduation rate is 67 percent, ranking it 342 of the state’s 350 schools. Its national ranking was 12,935 out of 17,245.
Meanwhile, Odelye and Osagie feel a sense of accomplishment. “The first year was amazing,” says Osagie. “Through our ups and downs — but mostly ups — we were able to achieve so much in one year. Our parents, community advocates, teachers and students really showed us what it really means to be an ‘achiever.’ They did not only believe, but they engaged in the process, challenging us to think, to strengthen our sense of what’s possible, and to act on our most important values. It was a great year indeed and I am looking forward to many great years at Achievers.”
Achievers Early College Prep Charter School, 500 Smith Street. 609-429-0279. www.achieversecp.org.