Education Opinion

Ben Marcovitz, Founder and Principal, Sci Academy, and CEO, Collegiate Academies

By Sara Mead — May 14, 2012 9 min read
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In the six years since Hurricane Katrina, efforts to rebuild New Orleans’ public schools have made the city an incredibly fertile ground for new education organizations and talent. Ben Marcovitz is one of the visionary young education leaders to emerge from post-Katrina New Orleans. In 2007 he founded Sci Academy, an open enrollment, college preparatory high school that has led the district in high school performance since its founding. That success in turn prompted the creation of the Collegiate Academies network, to replicate the Sci Academy model and grow the number of high-performing high schools in New Orleans that prepare all students to succeed in college. This fall, Collegiate Academies will open two additional schools in the historic George Washington Carver campus in New Orleans.

A graduate of Yale and Harvard Graduate School of Education, Marcovitz has taught in New Orleans, Boston, and Washington, D.C. Raised in Takoma Park, Maryland, he loves his adopted home city of New Orleans, where he lives with his wife and infant daughter.

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How did you come to found Sci Academy?
The ultimate purpose of both Sci Academy and Collegiate Academies is to demonstrate that at any point in time, no matter what’s happened in past, children can achieve at highest levels. You can’t be a teacher and not amass some very strong beliefs--maybe they were nascent in you all the time, maybe things you see and learn from working with kids. The most powerful one for me was the realization that the potential to transform a child’s educational trajectory is completely unbounded by time. We focus on high school because, given the opportunity to start a school in a red-tape free environment, with all the nonprofit support that exists in New Orleans, we wanted to build a school that makes the statement that you can do this at any point in a child’s life. There are lots of schools doing great work with kids, but most of them are starting in kindergarten or elementary, and the vast majority of college-prep schools for kids in high-poverty environments are fed by middle schools. We didn’t have much more to start a school with than that belief--which is alarmingly rare--and that belief fed its own pool of unique practices and beliefs.

You’re the Principal and Founder of Sci Academy, you’re the CEO of Collegiate Academies, you’re on the faculty of New Leaders and Leading Educators, and you recently became a father--how is all that possible?
There’s a cliché that “If you love your job you never work another day in your life"--that’s probably the best answer. I prioritize the things that mean the most to me. I’m a people person, and in my work I have the benefit of being around people who are in my workplace because they share the values I have.

In practical terms on the ground, I’ve tried to step it up in terms of leadership training, to translate the skills of people on my staff from leading kids to leading adults. I take more time to focus on how leaders can do the work I used to do, and building people to step up to do that, rather than doing it all myself. In the past I did a lot of teacher meetings during the day, but now I’ve trained the leaders to do those.

I was taken on very early in my leadership training by the idea of servant leadership. Teachers serve kids, leaders serve teachers, and so forth. So at Sci Academy we have something like a flipped organizational chart. My job is to be there at the bottom supporting everything. That’s how I spend most of the day when kids are there. Most of my day is spent in meetings with leaders talking with them about the teachers they support and the kids those teachers support. I also have a series of routine activities I perform on the ground as a school leader, facing directly at kids: Morning duty routines, attend lunch, I do a certain number of classroom observations every day.

When the kids aren’t here I spend a lot of time working to build the Collegiate Academies network. That’s a lot of hiring, human capital work, strategizing about what the structure looks like. That’s meetings and a ton of reading. I try to read for at least an hour every day--thinking about how to perfect this job, but also how to get access to idea that are out there that educators don’t typically get exposed to.

What are some of your greatest successes?
Our first cohort of students came in with only 33 percent of students proficient on the state exams in 8th grade--now 92% of them have already been accepted to 4-year-colleges.

But even more I value the way we’re trying to do it--we’re doing this with a group of kids that people think are the least likely to succeed. It’s not just that we start in 9th grade, we also have an extraordinarily high percentage of students with special needs. In our first few years we had major attrition, which is not uncommon in “No Excuses” schools, but we wanted to buck the trend. We put a lot of resources into that and now we lose very few kids.

What are your biggest challenges?
This single greatest challenge we face is, has been, and will be the academic deficits kids present entering 9th grade. In our first year we had to really distinguish between high hopes and hard work. We started out with a 9th grade curriculum and then had to face that the kids by and large couldn’t participate in that. So our next major accomplishment was building a curriculum that could ramp them up to that, and then to advance them beyond that. There isn’t a best practice list for this process yet or a host of partners and collaborators out there who can get together and talk about how to do this effectively. We got a lot of great resources from very generous organizations working in this space--MATCH, Noble Network, Uncommon Schools--but there’s a technical challenge of altering stuff so that kids reading at 4th grade level can access it. It’s also an emotional challenge, because you want so badly to see these kids succeed.

Our other big challenge is that we don’t have a real facility yet. We’ve been in trailers the whole time. That’s challenging because we spend a lot of time and resources on repair we otherwise wouldn’t. But it’s also a real spiritual drain on our community. The vast majority of our student population have families that know what it means to be ousted from your home and living in temporary environment. And over time it becomes more and more offensive to them that their children’s school is in this situation.

What do you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?
I want us to play a huge role in completely eliminating poor high school education in the city of New Orleans. I think I can say with some confidence that a 9th grader entering high school in New Orleans in 2017 will have no choice but to go to a good high school. We would be first urban system to be able to claim that. I want that to be true so badly, and Collegiate Academies is our way of contributing to help make that a reality. If 10 years from now that hasn’t been accomplished, or we didn’t help as much as we could, I’ll have regrets.

The point of what we’re doing is about human potential, not about schools. Human potential can be achieved at any point in time by anyone.

That belief informs how we work with teachers. I really believe there’s no such thing as staff culture distinct from student culture. When I bring staff on in the summer we tell them that what is required of a child in a school is to believe that, despite what they’ve heard and thought for a while, they can do it. That’s not a belief we can uphold for them unless it’s part of our own work. The notion of growth is embedded in our culture and teaching at Sci Academy. This is a place where people who aren’t yet the teacher they want to be, or who haven’t had the confidence to grow in other settings, come here and thrive. We don’t judge a candidate based on sample lesson. We judge them based on their response to feedback. We do that because we don’t judge our kids that way. Teachers who share those values are happy here. We’ve build into our team an extraordinary sense of vulnerability and community--we can never do the best thing yet, and are always working toward it.

Who are some individuals you admire in the education field, or individuals you admire in other fields whose examples shape your work in education?
The medical profession in general--I use it as a model for how we need to structure our work. The medical profession wasn’t always as concerned with excellence as it is now. Medical schools a century ago were all over the map and not very good. At some point in time, society decided that this job is too important to leave to chance. We need to standardize and set expectations so high that to use the second best rather than best practice is unethical. And there was a slow process toward the position of doctor being at height of society because the knowledge base required to be excellent doctor was difficult to obtain and there was a culture of aspiration around it.

Working with kids in educational settings, in particular high-need settings, is almost in the same place as the medical profession over a century ago. We have so many options for how to train and little consensus on best practices. All that’s missing is social commitment to the stakes of the job. We have to say, “This is too important to leave to chance, we have to standardize and make sure we’re using the best practices.” If you don’t agree and do that, you should leave the job. Organizations like ours are trying to do that internally--set up standards, training, best practices so that people are committed to excellence and doing it at this level. I see how doctors care about protocol and people at the same time, their investment in both analytic and interpersonal skills, their intense reliance on systems and the system’s investment in making that better. When I look at teachers, I think it should be that way, too.

What drew you to education in New Orleans?
Honestly, what brought me to education in New Orleans at the time was a girl. My college girlfriend--who is now my wife--did TFA in New Orleans, and she was a year ahead of me, so I spent my senior year visiting New Orleans and loving it. After I graduated I wanted to move down here, and I only knew the education scene, so that was where I ended up. I took a detour for a while and tried to write a book, but I realized that wasn’t the right thing for me--I’m too much of a people person to spend that much time alone writing.

A big part of loving my job is loving New Orleans--I find it quite a bit easier to do this work in new Orleans not just because of lack of bureaucratic requirements, but also because I live in this beautiful place where people are putting their all into change, and where people fundamentally value community and find occasion for communal celebration on a regular basis. For all the struggles we face, New Orleans’ great asset is that our people really know how to celebrate. Good food and music helps, too.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.