Leadership Lessons

Benjamin Marcovitz – Believing in the “impossible”

Before he founded his first charter school in New Orleans East, Benjamin Marcovitz had a vision to serve all students and a roadside sign to recruit them. He had no building. No staff. No desks. No pencils. No history.

“I still have that sign, and it’s ugly,” said Ben, now the chief executive officer of Collegiate Academies, the public charter network that grew from that first school that opened in 2008. He says he was bewildered by how many families responded to his pitch and an unattractive sign, “except that I think people didn’t feel like there were enough options, in the category of what they already knew to inspire them, not to try something about which the only thing they knew was that it was brand new.”

Ben hustled, visiting homes and walking neighborhoods to recruit 100 families into a new school — Sci Academy — modeled after New Orleans Charter Math and Science High School, where he taught English. He set out to build a school that would “do what nobody’s ever done before: assure ninth-grade families that no matter where your kid has been for the last 10-plus years, no matter how far behind they may be, we will get them ready for college in just four years,” he said.

The son of an art teacher at one of the most highly regarded independent K-12 schools in Washington, D.C. — where Ben got a tuition-free college-preparatory education — and a social worker serving abused and neglected youth, Ben graduated from Yale University and started his career in New Orleans, teaching 11th-grade English.

“I carry with me, daily, the power of the unit of school and the way it can build a community that envelops you, surrounds you, pushes you, makes you feel safe and inspired to do things that change your life,” he said.

He also carries with him the example of work life demonstrated by his social sector-working parents.

“They made working with people look extremely interesting, engaging and intellectually stimulating,” Ben said. “The problems they would bring home were the problems of people trying to work with and help each other, day to day, every day. That was my first understanding of work.”

Ben left teaching to follow his then-girlfriend to New York, where he planned to write the next great American novel. The relationship worked out; they are now married. But he missed education, so he enrolled at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. And he missed New Orleans and vowed to return.

Ben became a New Schools for New Orleans fellow, which launched after Hurricane Katrina to support and build education leadership in the city. One instructor told Ben he would be a strong leader because he was thoughtful about details, helping him predict opportunities and mishaps, both small and foundational. “In my head, I’m thinking, ‘Oh, you mean I’m freaking out all the time.’ It was the first time I recognized that the things I’m anxious about are actually thoughtful anticipations and strategic moves to create a healthy, high-impact organization. I needed some reason to think I was going to be a decent leader. So I went with that one,” Ben said.

As a result, Ben believes in what he calls “well-controlled freak outs.”

“If someone is looking for something specific in my DNA that leads to some measure of success in schools, being productively thoughtful and productively paranoid about everything that should happen for kids is one of the ways you can over-plan for things that can go wrong in public schools,” Ben added.

Much can go wrong in public schools, but much went right at Sci Academy. In 2009, Sci’s first student assessment results showed real promise. Among all of the schools in New Orleans’ Recovery School District, Sci Academy ranked second in math and first in English.

Under the umbrella of Collegiate Academies, Ben has since opened five more schools and Opportunities Academy, a campus that helps students with moderate to significant disabilities transition into independent adulthood. These open-enrollment schools are known for being selective with staff and championing a growth mindset above all else. In 2015 and 2016, Collegiate Academies was named one of The Best Places to Work in New Orleans.

“Behaviors change beliefs a lot more than beliefs change behaviors,” Ben said. “Once people see it working, we get a lot of belief where there wasn’t belief before.”

A decade after the opening of Sci Academy, 98 percent of Collegiate’s graduates are accepted to college and 84 percent score a 17 or higher on ACT’s college entrance exam. And student proficiency rates and graduation rates — including those for students with disabilities — all outrank city and state averages.

“Where we placed our bets were on adult mindset and beliefs — so ‘will,’ even over ‘skill.’ If you have a kid who curses at you 20 times in a class, do you give up on that kid? Or do you wait for the day he only does it 19 times and create some momentum from that? We became the school that did that,” Ben said. “The most important identity for all of us is that we believed this was possible.”

Collegiate Academies works to meet students where they are, sometimes overnight. When droves of students fled territorial violence in Honduras for New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, Ben’s team responded. “Most schools were not able to provide them with an easy way to enter and enroll. We said, ‘We’ll take them all.’”

The Honduran students came undocumented and without parental supervision. “We’re literally taking down signs and changing language on them overnight,” Ben recalled. “We had a bunch of teachers book home trips to Honduras to meet with families.”

Still, Collegiate Academies had its challenges. Even while its schools were bending over backwards to accommodate the Honduran refugees, some in the community complained that parent materials weren’t being translated fast enough.

And in 2013, when three of their schools reported some of the highest student suspension rates in the Recovery School District, students began protesting what they considered overly harsh discipline. Ben took those criticism to heart, aiming to design better disciplinary strategies based on the needs of their students. They researched best practices, visited places that had successful outcomes and — with the support of a local faith-based initiative to reduce youth violence and incarceration — they got to work rethinking their policies.

Ben implemented restorative justice practices that require students and adults to reflect on what everyone involved can do better to ensure a negative situation doesn’t arise again. They also implemented Positive Redirection Centers that allow disruptive students to stay on campus, focusing on schoolwork while they get the behavioral or emotional support they need. After the first year, their suspension rate dropped by nearly 80 percent.

“We do high school with a group of kids who are typically coming in really far behind — three to five grade levels in most areas. We’ve tried to raise the bar for special education, so our enrollment of students with disabilities is usually about twice that of the rest of the district. The majority of the city’s kids eligible for specialized programming at the high school level are at our schools,” Ben said. “Beyond that, we are enrolling three times the rate of kids who have been court involved or incarcerated, three times the rate of kids who are overage for their grade, and similarly, three times the rate of English language learners… By publicizing our ethos on serving all kids and highlighting the results we had doing that, we were able to raise more money for resources to help us create those alternatives to [student] suspension.”

Ben believes deeply in nurturing a growth mindset and thriving against all odds. But he found himself challenged like never before when his first child was born in 2012. She had a brain injury and spent her first five months of life in a neonatal intensive care unit. Doctors told Ben and his wife that their daughter would never walk, talk or recognize them. They said she had zero chance of development. Even with those grim odds, there still were so many doctors to meet with, and there still was so much planning to do.

“In one of those encounters, there was a doctor who was talking about her — not like she had a 0 percent chance of developing, but maybe she had a 10 percent chance of developing. Whatever that meant for us as parents at the time, it was my strongest meta moment as an educator. Looking back on the parents we were before we heard that and the parents we were after, the difference was not between 0 and 10 percent, it was between 0 and 100 percent,” Ben said. “We basically behaved exactly as we would have if someone had said there is a 100-percent chance she will develop fully, and it’s up to you to make sure that happens.”

Six years later, their daughter has progressed beyond everyone’s expectations. She attends a local Montessori school and continues her regular therapy sessions to improve her development.

“I realized, ah, that’s it. That’s how we need to be as an organization. We are people encountering things the rest of the world calls impossible, and the only way we will prove it is possible is by assuming it is probable and making choices accordingly. We are the difference,” Ben said. “It was around that time that we started developing programs for kids with special needs, that we started taking in more kids with experiences with the courts and incarceration, that we started dramatically rehabbing our discipline programs. We essentially said, ‘If it’s something that seems impossible or highly improbable in education, we want it. We want to prove how possible it is.’”

Now at Collegiate Academies, the on-time high school graduation rate for students with disabilities is 71 percent, almost double the Louisiana state average.

“The big bet we made is that a kid who is 17 years old as a freshman, really can’t read yet and has every reason in the world to distrust adults can get ready for college and a life of unlimited opportunity,” Ben said. “There are outlier stories all the time. And there need to be more outlier stories, to the point where they are no longer ‘outliers.’”