LBI Native’s New Book an Insider’s Account of Charter Schools, From Idea to National Movement

Sarah Tantillo Releases Hit the Drum
Jul 10, 2019

In early summer 1996, following the passage in January of the Charter School Program Act – which authorized the state commissioner of education to establish a charter school program – Sarah Tantillo decided to take a leave, without pay, from her teaching position at Southern Regional High School, intending to figure out how she could play a role in the charter school movement. “At the time, there were only about a dozen of us working in our various states, and we met informally to share ideas about how to help people start and launch charter schools,” she explained. “In fact, one of the earliest meetings – in June 1997 – was in my living room on LBI.”

Tantillo moved to the Island when she was in first grade, later graduating from Southern in 1983 and enrolling at Princeton University. She received a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature, then went into teaching via the alternate route. After a year at Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School, she returned to Southern, to teach English.

She worked at SRHS from 1988 to 1990 before heading to Harvard University for an M.Ed. She taught again at the high school from 1991 to 1994, left to earn a master’s degree in fiction writing from Johns Hopkins University, and then was back at Southern for the 1995-96 school year.

The prior few and subsequent many years inform Tantillo’s new book, Hit the Drum: An Insider’s Account of How the Charter School Idea Became a National Movement. As she noted, “Part of the story of Hit the Drum … is about what specifically happened to draw me into the movement and how people helped me to launch the first statewide charter school resource center in New Jersey.”

Tantillo presents readers with the story of how and why she became intrigued by the idea of charter schools, which partly hinges on her identity as “a bit of a policy geek.”

“I was captivated by the notion that teachers, parents and other community members could start a school from scratch to create a new public choice,” she pointed out. “I also loved the idea of gaining autonomy in exchange for accountability. I watched the idea spread from Minnesota, where the first charter school legislation passed in 1991, and waited for it to reach New Jersey. In 1995, I enrolled in the doctoral program at Rutgers, thinking I might want to help start a school, and had some preliminary conversations with colleagues who were also interested.”

She added, “From the moment I became involved, I was struck by the energy and passion of the educators who were taking this leap. We all wanted to improve public schools for all children. And we were all willing to work 24/7 to make things happen.  The urgency to improve public education inspired me then, and it continues to do so.”

The book also includes the fruit of Tantillo’s interviews with 60 to 70 key players in the charter school movement. “I wrote the book to try to capture at least a few dozen of these heroes and heroines,” said Tantillo. “One of my personal idols is Linda Brown, an educator in Massachusetts who wanted to provide better public school choices, especially in Boston. She ran the Massachusetts Charter School Resource Center and was instrumental in helping those of us in other states to learn how to do this work. After Boston hit its cap, she founded Building Excellent Schools, a nonprofit that incubated high-performing charters all around the country.  Linda’s urgent work enabled the creation of more than a hundred high-performing charters serving low-income students.”

Currently, Tantillo noted, there are about 7,000 charter schools serving 3.2 million children throughout the country, “and the movement continues to grow.  Although the idea – which Ted Kolderie (who was sort of the ‘godfather’ of the movement) described as ‘withdrawing the exclusive franchise’ from the districts – challenges the status quo and for that reason has had its detractors, more and more parents and children see the value of having these choices and do not want to go backwards.”

In her book, she details how charters have inspired numerous innovations “that have taken hold in the field, and I suspect they will continue to do that. Charter leaders have started brand new graduate schools of education, and high-performing charters have openly shared their curriculum on the internet.”

Tantillo ran the New Jersey Charter School Resource Center for three years, then started and helmed, for 3½ years, the N.J. Charter Public Schools Association. She thereafter found her way to North Star Academy in Newark, where she wrote the high school English curriculum, and taught English, for seven years.

“In September 1997, I witnessed the scene that inspired the title for this book,” she explained. “It was the first day at North Star Academy in Newark – a charter that went on to become one of the highest-performing schools in the state. The leaders ran a drum ceremony to welcome students into the community of the school. It was incredibly moving and inspiring. Starting new schools from scratch gives charters the opportunity to build intentional cultures, to be very purposeful about every detail that contributes to student success.”

In 2007, Tantillo began consulting full-time on literacy, data-driven instruction and curriculum development, to share many of the lessons developed at North Star.

And she began writing, releasing The Literacy Cookbook: A Practical Guide to Effective Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening Instruction in 2012; Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action in 2014; and Using Grammar to Improve Writing: Recipes for Action in 2018. Hit the Drum arrived earlier this year.

Of her latest effort, James N. Goenner, president and CEO of the National Charter Schools Institute, stated, “Tantillo’s insider account captures the heart and soul of the charter schools movement and serves as a compelling reminder that chartering is really a strategy for empowering people to make a difference.”

“Sarah Tantillo weaves a fascinating history from 1983’s ‘A Nation at Risk’ to today’s fertile petri-dish of the promised and delivered-on innovation provided by charters and other education options,” noted Jeanne Allen, founder and CEO of The Center for Education Reform.

Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews said Hit the Drum is “a groundbreaking narrative on the birth and blossoming of the charter school movement, particularly the most successful part of it. ... If you have time for only one book on charter schools, this is it.”

For the past 12 years, until the spring of this year, Tantillo also consulted with charters and district schools. In May, she took a position as managing director of humanities at Great Oaks Legacy Charter School in Newark.

Tantillo remarked, “Although I still do a little consulting on the side – and still write blog posts and update my website regularly – I’m enjoying digging in with colleagues to follow through more fully on our questions, challenges and ideas.”

Learn more about Tantillo’s work at

Juliet Kaszas-Hoch

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