Brown alum Norman Atkins ’84 P’10 P’14 received a Heinz Award in the Human Condition category for his work on pioneering innovative teacher training models and improving learning outcomes for low-income students, according to the Heinz Awards’ website. The Teresa Heinz and Heinz Family Foundation award annually recognizes six recipients and gives them a $250,000 unrestricted cash award, according to a Sept. 18 press release.
Atkins, who is the founder of Uncommon Schools and co-founder of the Relay Graduate School of Education and North Star Academy, said he was surprised and excited to learn he had won the award. “The work that I’ve been doing for the past 30 years has been all about trying to fight poverty and, mostly, to fight poverty through education,” he said. “So it’s a big honor to receive an award that recognizes that work and has gone to people who are my heroes such as Geoff Canada, Marian Wright Edelman and Paul Farmer.”
The Relay Graduate School of Education, an accredited institution of higher education, trains teachers and principals and provides certifications at the master’s level. “I wanted to help the next generation of educators, of teachers and principals, to develop the mindset and skill and the experience to make them effective at helping particularly low-income children, mostly in urban environments, to compete and achieve at the same level as their more affluent peers,” Atkins explained.
The Heinz Awards were established by Teresa Heinz “as a tribute to her late husband, U.S. Senator John Heinz,” said Kim O’Dell, director and program officer of the Heinz Awards. The award seeks individuals who share the values and attributes exemplified by Heinz through six award categories: arts and humanities; environment; human condition; public policy; technology, economy and environment; and the Chairman’s Medal, which is a lifetime achievement award.
Atkins’ work has been motivated by the structural problems in U.S. education. “There is an achievement gap in the country where low-income students are finishing high school on average about four years behind their more affluent peers,” he said. “I believe this isn’t due to an inherent difference in the students themselves but a failure in the education system.”
O’Dell said the scale of Atkins’ work was a significant factor in determining his award win. “The jury felt that his work is addressing a systemic issue and will have a broad societal impact,” O’Dell said. “It is not just in one city or one school, but it is replicable and being implemented throughout the country.” She added that Atkins’ creativity and deep-seated interest in equitable outcomes resonated with the jury. “They also acknowledge that if we don’t change educational outcomes for low-income kids, there is really no reason to expect that there is any way we are going to disrupt intergenerational poverty for those families,” O’Dell said.
James Verrilli MA’90, co-founder of the North Star Academy Charter School of Newark and senior dean of Relay, also commended the large-scale impact of Atkins’ work. “He created North Star Academy with me, that started as a one school and 72 kids to now 5,000 kids in 14 different campuses. He created Uncommon Schools, which is 43 schools across the northeast. Then, he created Relay Graduate School Education, which now has 18 campuses across the country.”
Atkins attributed much of his success to the time he spent at Brown and the network he created there. He concentrated in history and was a Herald editor. “What I got out of my education at Brown was a deep commitment to social justice and a deep belief that education is the up-escalator, a way up, for people in the world, regardless of where they are from,” he said.