August 3, 2017

To change lives, Rob Connor is focusing on the whole family in Trenton school

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Not long ago, a student of the Christina Seix Academy (CSA) in Trenton, NJ, had a mother with no job and an unstable housing situation. Today, that student is thriving. With the guidance of the independent school, the mother has completed a nursing program and obtained a job.

Penn GSE alum Rob Connor, Head of School at Christina Seix Academy

When founding Head of School Rob Connor was helping to plan out CSA, he was charged with creating a school that would give low-income children an education on par with what their more affluent peers were receiving at private schools. Connor immersed himself in Trenton, meeting in living rooms and poring through data. He also developed ideas with professors and education leaders he met while earning his Education Policy and Leadership doctorate at Penn GSE.

Connor and the other CSA founders realized that to succeed they couldn’t just provide for students. The school would have to become part of the community fabric. “We want to be active partners and our work includes not just the students and the families but serving the larger community in any way we can,” Connor said. “We believe strongly in public education and work closely with local schools. Our goal is to show when you invest in kids in the right way, good things will come.”

Opened in 2012, and serving neighborhoods where 40% of the population is at or below the poverty level and 80% of those families are headed by a single parent with a child under age 3, CSA is achieving its mission. About 89% of student scores are advanced/proficient, based on standardized test scores. In addition, family and staff attrition is low, and community partnerships continue to grow.

At Penn GSE, Connor specialized in teacher retention. Penn GSE’s Education Policy Division is training the next generation of researchers, policy makers, and school leaders to examine the pressing issues in education, including education funding, standards and assessments, and the teaching workforce. U.S. News & World Report ranks the division seventh nationally.

Connor’s focus on teacher retention has greatly influenced the school culture he has worked to create at CSA. The school balances the demanding job with unique staff benefits, including on-campus housing and meals. Connor hired a young staff from the area so they would reflect the students they serve and have passion for the community. He’s seen a ripple effect as staff members join other community organizations that directly and indirectly serve the mission of the school.

CSA serves students of single-adult homes from preschool to 8th grade. Students typically begin at age 3, with 20 students enrolled each year. The school currently has 180 students—the inaugural class is in fourth grade—with a 5:1 student-to-teacher ratio. Annual scholarships cover student tuition and expenses, including meals and a boarding option for older students.

The school runs year-round, and staff work non-standard hours to accommodate the boarding program and parents’ schedules. “It’s allowed us to respond to the unique learning needs of all of our students and families in really interesting ways,” Connor said. “We have to rethink the standard schedule of schooling if we’re really serious about ensuring that our kids from urban communities have a real shot at being successful over the long term.”

CSA has also found early success with the breadth of services it provides to parents. The 80-acre campus includes a health and wellness center, computer lab, and resource center that provides child-rearing information and legal, career, and housing advocacy services. “The idea of being able to educate kids in isolation from the heath, housing, or legal needs of their families or the parents’ career interests, I can’t see it really allowing the family to progress in ways that are advantageous to the long-term needs of the child,” Connor said.

CSA was the dream of former investment manager Christina Seix who wanted to use the proceeds from the sale of her business to fund an independent school for underserved children. “I hope Christina’s work inspires others in small cities with big city obstacles,” Connor said. “We need more schools with flexibility and resources in communities that need support. It would make a heck of a difference.”