New Leaders

Great leaders = Great schools TM

Misha Simmonds

Cohort 7
Executive Director, University Heights Charter School


“New Leaders provides a community of colleagues for me that provides support, encouragement, and new ideas. We’ve been able to host residents, visitors, and meetings, and it has really helped our school stay connected to the larger urban education reform movement.” 

When Misha Simmonds arrived at University Heights Charter School in Newark, NJ in 2008, the school was in crisis. Even though it had only been open for two years, the state had already notified the charter board that if there was not a dramatic turnaround in financial management and academic performance, the school would be closed by the end of year three. Discipline was poor, accountability for all stakeholders was weak, and professional development for teachers had been nearly non-existent. The school was looking for leadership and direction.

Misha entered the school feeling overwhelmed, honored and inspired. Overwhelmed because the school would be opening its doors in only one week, honored that the board gave him the incredible opportunity to lead the school and inspired by the possibility to dramatically raise student achievement.

Misha entered the school as executive director with fellow New Leader Principal Rashene Davis as a partner. The pair worked together to prioritize and plan for the upcoming year. Misha’s first priorities when he entered the school were to establish structure, goals and accountability. With a week to go before school, he focused on the basics: developing procedures, rules and a schedule. Next, he provided staff with a vision and goals for what he believed the school could become. That vision included working with the staff to have an efficacy mindset – that the adults in the building were responsible for student performance and that effective effort would take them there.

At the end of his first year at University Heights, teachers felt that there was a stronger school culture and consistency of expectations across the school. One teacher noted, “In the past, everything was ‘classroom to classroom’ and there was no consistency. The disorganization really took a toll on our kids. This year, the school has made a 180 degree turn. There is a whole-school discipline system and a sense of organization.” Another veteran teacher added, “The school culture is much better than it was last year. There is a sense of calm throughout the school that hasn’t existed in the past.” A college-centered culture was building; in his first year the staff committed that every class, from kindergarten on up, would visit a college.

Teachers also thought that school leadership had improved. One teacher explained, “The past leader took a very passive approach to school leadership. She emphasized ‘peace’ when she needed to get control of the school. Misha and Rahshene (Davis, Principal) have really taken control of the school and given it much-needed direction.”

Teachers in the school, and especially veteran teachers felt that professional development had improved as well. One teacher said bluntly, “Last year we had no professional development. Now we get it regularly.” Another veteran teacher explained, “I was very skeptical about whether a lot of the things that Mr. Simmonds and Ms. Davis presented would actually happen. What has played out is the amount of professional development and support we have received.”

The dedication and leadership of Misha and Principal Rashene Davis have resulted in some incredible results in student achievement. In 2009, only 11% of 4th grade students were proficient in reading and math at University Heights. Under their leadership for two years, in 2011, 45% of students were proficient in reading and 90% were proficient in math. That’s a combined gain of 113 percentage points. Over the past two years they also cut the achievement gap with non-disadvantaged students by 27 points in reading and completely eliminated the achievement gap in math. On state assessments, the school moved from number 57 out of 59 among public schools serving the same grades in Newark to number nine. As a result, University Heights Charter School was honored with the EPIC Silver-Gain Award. Misha was also awarded with the Most Valuable Principal award from Playworks in 2010.