Meet Jessica Newburn, Director, School Quality Support

November 21, 2018

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Meet Jessica Newburn: Q & A with CCSA's New Director, School Quality Support

Jessica comes to CCSA from Aspire Public Schools, where she was most recently the principal of Aspire College Academy (ACA) in Oakland. In that role, she led the process of transforming and stabilizing a school and its culture and academic outcomes, culminating in the school's successful renewal. In her new role at CCSA, Jessica will lead early notification and support to charter schools regarding CCSA's accountability initiatives, play a key role in Multiple Measure Reviews, and collaborate closely with other key CCSA teams supporting school quality. Based in LA, Jessica will be traveling throughout the state as she visits and supports schools.

What brought you to education and eventually to Aspire?

Both of my grandmothers were educators, so I always say that education is in my blood. I noticed at a young age that educational opportunity in my community was not "as advertised." We say that education is "free" and of quality, but that's not what I experienced. My parents chose to send me to Catholic schools and I distinctly remember a conversation with my mom when I was only in 2nd grade. I wanted to know why I had to go to a different school than my friends in my neighborhood. My mom told me the school down the street wasn't good enough. Although my parents certainly sacrificed financially for their choice, not all families had the ability to make that choice for their children. Friends and family members were attending the very schools that my family opted out of. As I got older, I learned that these inequities were often by design and I became passionate about educational quality for all kids.

My schools have been my second homes and by holding roles all over campus, I have seen schools from many vantage points. As a charter school leader, I learned what school change really took. My work at ACA was being a champion for quality-rallying staff and families around a new vision for our school's culture and instruction. But after setting in place a new vision, changing learning outcomes wasn't easy. Our greatest results came from understanding assessment and using data more effectively to change our teaching practices. I am excited to bring these experiences to my new role and am honored to support charter schools around the state as they fight to provide high quality choices to ALL families and students.

Aspire focuses on opening schools in and serving low-income communities. What are the specific challenges you see for students and teachers in those neighborhoods?

I worked in low-income neighborhoods in Oakland for many years and two challenges stand out. One is about expectations. I saw many educators think they were being understanding of the challenges students faced, but in reality, they were lowering expectations and rigor. For any student, in any community, teachers must hold their students to a high academic bar and then adjust supports to help them get there. But in our schools, educators of all backgrounds are also combatting historical messages sent to and about our students. Every decision, every day has to be made with a critical eye and unwavering belief in our kids' abilities. When we lower our bar, we are communicating to students and families that we don't think they can meet our goal.

A second significant challenge is individualization and student support. Our students had a wide range of experiences. So many had seen gun violence first hand, had family members in jail, and reported high levels of anxiety. To help all our students succeed, we needed to be creative with resources and roles. We had an all-hands-on-deck, no excuses mentality. We constantly studied and practiced new strategies, and trained anyone and everyone to support students. It was not uncommon for our cafeteria manager to be a 1:1 aid in the afternoon or our office assistant to monitor a student behavior plan.

The thing I loved, though, was that we could do it... and after a few years, we used what we had learned to create an individualized model of student support that included increased mental health service. This model is now living at ACA and making our school even more accessible to all our students.

What do you see as the role of charter schools in improving public education across California?

Giving high quality school choices to students and families, especially in historically marginalized communities, is absolutely critical. So many students and families deserve stronger schools and better options--and charter schools are an important part of this puzzle. Status quo is not acceptable when we create charter alternatives for families to choose. I can't get onboard with solutions to our educational problems that will take generations. Without exception, the students in schools today deserve rigorous instruction and positive school environments.

What excites you about your role at CCSA and the association's work on accountability?

My work has always been about quality and accountability. As a teacher, the most important way I showed my students that I believed in them was by holding them accountable for high quality work. As a school leader, the same was true for adults. Understanding of the complexities and challenges of our work, but being unwavering in our drive for quality is the only way we will offer this generation something better. This is the spirit I will bring to my work at CCSA.

As a collective of public charter schools, we are accountable to students and the opportunities they find when they leave us. Their future lives depend on us being accountable for academic results and CCSA's Academic Accountability Framework holds that belief front and center. Excited to get started!