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Q&A with Sarah Tantillo '87, educator

Sarah Tantillo ’87 is an educational consultant who has written several books and research reports, founded multiple organizations to aid charter schools, and taught high school English and humanities for 14 years. The ‘Prince’ sat down with her to discuss her books, experiences at the University, roles in founding the New Jersey Charter School Resource Center and New Jersey Charter Public Schools Association, and thoughts on the future of education in the United States.

The Daily Princetonian: When did you realize that you wished to pursue a career in education? Did your time at the University play a role in this decision?

Sarah Tantillo: I’ve written about this decision in a manuscript that is not yet published. It’s a book about how the charter school idea became a national movement. Late one February night in my senior year, I was talking with a friend who was an English major. I was a comparative literature major and a bit nervous about my senior thesis deadline. My friend had just switched her topic for the fourth time, but she said she wasn’t worried about finishing her thesis; she was more worried about getting a job.

“What are you going to do?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Are you going to any interviews?”

“I don’t want to be an investment banker,” I shrugged. “The recruiters all seem to think ‘Princeton in the nation’s service’ means ‘in the service of capitalism.’”

“What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know.”

“That’s not good enough,” she said. “What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I want to write, but I know I can’t make any money doing that. I don’t know.”

“What are you going to do? What do you want to do?”

“I want to teach!” It came from deep within me, from my heart, my gut, my soul — a rush of feelings and memories pouring out. I’d had so many great teachers, and suddenly I could picture each one, almost as though they were standing in a long line, beckoning me to join them.

The next day, I walked into the Career Services office. The director handed me some information on the Alternate Route to [New Jersey Teacher] Certification and added, “Someone from the state is coming in next week to interview people. You should sign up.”

That “someone from the state” turned out to be Jack Osander ’57 and a former dean of admissions at the University. During the interview, we talked about his obsession with F. Scott Fitzgerald, my thesis on Hemingway and Faulkner, and how the Alternate Route offered an opportunity to share my love of literature with students. He also mentioned that he had a spot for an intern in his office: “Would you be interested in a spring-and-summer job, helping people such as yourself find teaching jobs?” Yes. Yes, I would.

I ended up finding a teaching job as a result of that internship.

DP: You did in fact end up writing the Literacy Cookbook, which describes itself as “A Practical Guide to Effective Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening Instruction.” What motivated you to write the book? What is the key takeaway from it?

ST: The preface ... explains why I wrote the book. Like any other avid reader, I used to think I knew a lot about reading. But most of those times I was wrong. I did well in high school and went to Princeton and thought I knew how to read — wrong. Graduated with a degree in comparative literature and was sure I knew what good readers do — again, wrong. Sure, I knew how to analyze poems, stories, novels, and plays. If pressed, I could translate Baudelaire. But on the day I started teaching high school English, I realized it didn’t matter. After all of that schooling, I didn’t know what to do with students who struggled to read.

Like many high school teachers, I’d expected students to know how to read by the time they reached me. Wasn’t that the rule? Since I’d always loved reading, I had no idea what their problems were, much less how to solve them. Entering the classroom in 1987 through the Alternate Route, I had no training in how to teach reading and very little in how to teach writing.

As a result, when my students were confused, I was equally baffled. But I was determined to figure out how to help them.

So I did what I usually do to solve problems: I read about them and tried to apply what I was learning. Over time — far too long for some students, who suffered through numerous experiments with remarkable patience — I learned enough about reading and writing to be dangerous. My students passed state tests and went on to college. Based on those results, I felt like I had some useful ideas to share. So, after teaching high school for 14 years, I left the classroom to become a literacy consultant.

That’s when I began to grasp how little I truly knew.

My first clients were inner-city elementary and middle school teachers who wanted to put their students on a trajectory to college. They trusted me, since my students (from Newark, N.J.) had all gone to college. But unlike me, they didn’t expect their students to be fully formed adult readers or eloquent writers. They needed strategies. From me.

In a semi-panic, I bought stacks of books, and they rescued me.... Working with teachers in dozens of schools, I tested and retested every approach I could find or create. Learning how to teach reading — comprehension, that is (I still know less than I would like to about phonics and decoding) — led me to develop ideas about what I wish I’d known. I created a website called The Literacy Cookbook and began to write [the] book, thinking to myself, “If only I could go back and show my first-year-teacher self how to teach students how to read and write more effectively.”

DP: If you could design your own school without any resource constraints, what would it look like in terms of curriculum, management, and facilities?

ST: I’m not sure that I would design one particular school. I’m more interested in supporting people who want to create an array of options to meet students’ different needs. I am thrilled that the policy of chartering schools has enabled many excellent public schools to be created, particularly for children from under-resourced communities, helping them to reach their fullest potential.

DP: What are the top three markers of high-quality education?

ST: In the case of inputs, I think it’s vital to build an intentional school culture with high academic and civic expectations to ensure that all stakeholders in the school are rowing in the same direction. While other inputs are important, e.g., preparation of school leaders and teachers, effectiveness of instruction and supports, access to academic resources..., I would put school culture as the foundation underlying an effective school. In the case of outputs, I would want to look at long-term impact, not just test scores, though they do tell us something: How many of your alumni not only get into college but also graduate and pursue advanced degrees? How many end up pursuing careers that enable them to give back to their community? How many become effective parents?

DP: You served as the founding Director of the New Jersey Charter Public Schools Association when it was founded. What was that experience like? Did you face any resistance from the charter school community?

ST: I had left the state after running the NJ Charter School Resource Center, which I’d also founded, for three years, intending to do some consulting in Chicago, and I wasn’t really happy with the move. One of the state’s prominent charter school leaders, Norman Atkins, who co-founded North Star Academy, called and asked me if I would consider coming back to help launch the Association. I told him I would, under three conditions: 1) It would only be part-time, because I needed to finish my dissertation, 2) it would only be an interim position because I wanted to get back into the classroom, and 3) I forget what the third condition was. I took the job, but none of those conditions were ever met. LOL. I stayed in that “part-time” position for 3.5 years, and I also resumed teaching high school English “part-time” at North Star Academy Charter School of Newark, where I stayed for seven years.

Running the Association was like when they open fire hydrants in the summer: Everything flew out, relentlessly. There was no resistance from the charter school community; in fact, they were happy to have someone they knew in the position, since I’d run the CSRC and helped many of them start their schools. But after New Jersey’s charter schools had been operating for a few years, they began to face a steady onslaught of legal and legislative challenges. I spent a lot of time driving to Trenton to deliver testimony, and doing everything I could think of to get the word out about what charters were accomplishing in spite of the many challenges they faced.

DP: What inspired you to found the New Jersey Charter School Resource Center? What was the process like?

ST: I’m actually writing a book about how the idea of charter schools became a national movement. It’s a fascinating story — well, set of stories — about how the laws began to spread around the country and what has happened over the past two decades in the field.

My own experience, very briefly, was that when New Jersey’s law passed, I had been teaching high school English for seven years and was extremely intrigued with the idea of creating new schools to improve public education more broadly. It’s a long story how the CSRC came to be, but I will share one early bit. Along with about 330 other people, I went to New Jersey’s first statewide charter schools conference, sponsored by the legislators and hosted at Seton Hall University in spring of 1996. The energy at that conference was electric; it was like having 330 inventors rubbing their hands together, walking around, asking, “What are you going to do? What are you going to do?” Anyway, at one of the sessions, Jim Peyser, who ran the Pioneer Institute in Boston and is now Massachusetts Secretary of Education, explained what his colleague Linda Brown was doing, running the Charter School Resource Center there, helping people start schools.

During the Q&A portion, I stood up and asked, “Who’s going to help people start these things in New Jersey?” Peyser turned to the two representatives from the New Jersey Department of Education on the panel, and they sort of shrugged. “I guess that’s a good question,” he said. When I sat down, my heart was pounding. I went home that night and sent a fax to Scott McVay [’55], who was then head of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, asking him what he thought about the idea of a Charter School Resource Center for New Jersey. He called me the next day and said, “Why don’t you come to lunch?” That was how things started. I knew Scott as a result of my previous work at the NJDOE with Jack Osander and because I’d won a Dodge Fellowship when I went into teaching through the Alternate Route. He was tremendously supportive of my efforts to start the CSRC; I couldn’t have done it without him. Another Princetonian who helped make it happen was Tom O’Neill [*70], who ran the Partnership for New Jersey, which became the umbrella under which we launched the CSRC. The bottom line is that while I was passionate and relentless about starting the CSRC, I couldn’t have done it alone, and I’m truly grateful to everyone who helped me.

DP: What do you think the future of charter schools looks like in New Jersey, and in the United States at large?

ST: This is another chapter in my book! LOL. I will be very brief. One thing I’m certain of is that charters are here to stay. While they are not 100 percent perfect — some are awful and should be closed, as should district schools that fail to educate students — there are enough high-quality proof points to show that they can be quite effective, particularly when it comes to educating students from under-resourced communities, and the long waiting lists at these schools reveal the scope of the demand that remains unmet.

More and more, superintendents are looking for ways to establish a “portfolio” of schools — some district schools, some charter schools — especially in cities, such as Camden, Newark, and D.C., where parents are looking for more choices.

Parents want good schools for their children, and they are increasingly aware that they have options, so they will vote with their feet and speak up more and more. I don’t think that’s going to change. So we have a lot of work to do, to keep improving the schools we have and designing new ones to meet those needs.

DP: What advice would you give to students who wish to pursue careers in education?

ST: Do it! Volunteer to tutor, visit schools in various settings to figure out where you want to work, reach out to alumni who are in the field.... Learn as much as you can about the field and how to enter it. You have lots of options! And once you’re in, trust me: You will never be bored!

DP: Finally, what is your favorite memory from your time as a student at Princeton?

ST: I’m not sure I have one specific memory, but I loved being an RA and have many fond memories of time spent with my advisees.

DP: And your least favorite?

ST: I used to dread having to write papers and study for exams during winter break. It never felt like a break. Do they still make students do that? Ugh.