An Interview with Engin Blackstone

In March, the Peoria Charter School Initiative announced that Engin Blackstone would be the first principal of Quest Charter Academy (QCA), Peoria’s math, science and technology charter school.

Most recently, Blackstone served as principal of the Horizon Science Academy in Toledo, Ohio, a charter school operated by Concept Schools Inc., the same management firm that will operate Quest. There, he raised the school’s academic rating and ultimately achieved 100-percent college acceptance for the school’s senior class.

From 2006 to 2007, Blackstone served as assistant principal and math teacher at the Horizon Science Academy Denison Middle School in Cleveland, Ohio, where he oversaw academic support programs and after-school tutoring and implemented programs to improve parental involvement. Blackstone was instrumental in launching the Chicago Math and Science Academy, one of the top-performing schools in Chicago. He also served as assistant principal with the Wisconsin Career Academy in Milwaukee, where he was a member of the charter school’s start-up team.

Blackstone earned a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics from Marmara University in Istanbul, Turkey, and is completing a Master of Arts degree in Educational Leadership from Marian College in Milwaukee.

Describe your professional background and how you came to helm Peoria’s new charter school.
I have been with charter schools for the last 10 years. I worked for private schools for three years prior to that. During my career, I have served as a math teacher (my major in college), activity coordinator, dean of academics and principal. Working in these various positions of school operations has prepared me well as a school leader with knowledge and experience in these areas. I have been working with Concept Schools, the charter management organization that manages 19 schools in the Midwest, since 2000. During that time, I was on the startup team for two charter schools.

Provide a brief overview of your summer duties in advance of the school opening.
There is a lot work to be done before the first day of school, which for us is August 24th. I must complete hiring staff members by mid-July and acquire all needed resources, such as catering and bussing contracts, furniture and technology for running the school. I will have met with all 225 students and their families as part of their orientation. QCA staff will get together for a three-week summer institute beginning August 2nd.

What are some of the best practices in education that will be employed at the new charter school?
A data-driven and personalized education plan, differentiated and technology-integrated instruction, and problem/project-based teaching are some of the best practices we will implement in our program.

How will the charter school address subjects in addition to math, science and technology—such as the arts, history, literature and the social sciences?
Emphasizing mathematics, science and technology does not mean that we will not give high importance to the other subjects. Our students will have double periods of reading and language arts and one period of social sciences instruction every day. We have three periods of art classes every week and are planning to offer afterschool music programs to our students.

What lessons did you learn from your previous experiences starting and operating charter schools that can be applied here?
There are three key components critical to the success of a school:

  • An education plan that works well
  • Highly qualified teachers and staff who implement the plan
  • The school leader who leads the plan.

What are your goals and expectations, and do you expect to hit those targets in the first year?
Our goal is to create a school culture built on a common set of values; student, teacher and parent accountability; and high expectations, all resulting in high levels of student achievement. Our goal for the first year is to have a strong start and create a school culture that fosters high student achievement.

Besides standardized test scores, how will success be measured at the new charter school?
Our students will take the nationally recognized NWEA (Northwest Evaluation Association) test twice a year, and we will measure yearly progress through this test. Our students are also going to take three interim assessments before the ISAT (Illinois Standards Achievement Test), which will give us a chance to monitor students’ progress during the school year. Our teachers and administrators will be analyzing the interim assessment results and creating an action plan based on their findings.

Describe the hiring process for teachers and other staff. How is it different from hiring in traditional public schools? Will you use the Teach for America program?
Eligible teacher candidates submit their resumes. We review them, inviting selected candidates to the first interview. We talk about teachers' qualifications and their education philosophy during our first interview. We rate the candidates based on the first meeting, run reference checks and determine whether we are going on to a second round or not. During the second interview, we talk at length about our high expectations. The last step is making the offer and signing the contract. We use various sources to reach eligible candidates. Teach for America has proven to be an excellent source for good teachers. Hiring non-teaching staff members is essentially the same process, focusing on high expectations and accountability.

How is the training provided by Concept Schools different from traditional teacher education?
Our teachers start the school year on August 2nd, three weeks before the students start, and have Summer Institute for three weeks. Concept Schools provides training in various areas, such as curriculum and instruction, data analysis, technology integration, project-based teaching, and the student database system. This professional development is critical to our success. We make sure our teachers are 100-percent ready for the school year. The Concept academic team visits the school two or three times during the school year, observing teachers and giving them feedback. They provide additional training and workshops during professional development days throughout the school year and additional support as needed. Concept Schools also organizes annual two-day conferences for all of its teachers, inviting nationally recognized speakers, and providing high-quality breakout sessions for its staff.

Some charter schools in Minnesota, Ohio and elsewhere are being forced to close for poor performance. Why do some charter schools succeed when others fail?
It is really difficult to comment on why some charter schools are failing since I have not experienced it in any of our schools. Charter schools exist to make a difference in students' lives, and when the entire staff (administrators, teachers, administrative assistants, custodians, bus drivers and cafeteria workers) is committed to this mission, failure is not an option.

Should schools be operated like businesses? Are there unique qualities inherent to the educational system that should be considered?
Our business structure is goal- and profit-oriented. However, the philosophy behind processes such as gathering and analyzing data, observing outcomes, and making efficient use of resources is the same. Our goal is to reach high levels of student achievement, and we manage our resources in the most efficient way to achieve
our goals.

What about the criticisms from one-time proponents of charter schools, such as former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, who has publicly broken with the movement?

The charter school movement is getting stronger every year. The number of charter schools and student enrollment are increasing all around the nation. It is normal to see criticism about any growing movement.

If the charter school is successful, does it make sense to extend the charter school format district-wide?
This is something the District 150 school board and superintendent will decide in the future. iBi

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